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Taxidermy and Tractors: A Look at Small Town Literature

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Living in East Texas for a few years, I learned to appreciate the small towns that make up the bulk of the region. Some felt abandoned, save for a small cafe serving frozen foods in decorative dishes, a grade school cafeteria menu for adults passing through. I felt a nostalgia for something I never really had, but felt as though I should.

I grew up in the suburbs of Keller, a copy-and-paste city, something stamped down in a row of others just like it, so moving to Nacogdoches changed me. I didn’t feel technology's heavy loom or capitalism’s blood-pulse, what kept my father at work so long and my family in separate rooms with headphones. No, I experienced walks in the woods with no purpose. A blueberry festival. Sitting in a pick-up bed drinking beer on the Fourth, no fireworks, just friends talking about some stupid cult film we needed to rewatch and would. Stumbling upon a box full of scarves at an estate sale, one friend telling me, We should bring these by the nursing home for the women there. There was a purity. I started to feel the “this is how it’s supposed to be.”

Now that I’ve moved back to Dallas, the small town life still pulls at me; sometimes I consider moving back: no plan, no job, just the desire to experience simplicity manifested geographically. But I’m not so naive; there’s another side.

While driving through Henderson with a couple of buddies one day, we noticed an ideal country home, the whole white picket fence aesthetic set alone on a large kept-up lot against a bright sky. It felt untouched, stolen from fiction. We stopped the car and stared, the silence finally broken when I said, I bet the family has problems. It was the most honest thing I could say, maybe rude, maybe coming from a place of spite, but behind the small town facade sometimes there’s darkness.

Sometimes peace and quiet is a cover for what is not to be spoken of or remembered: a series of meth lab raids and explosions, an incestuous family living in sheds off highway 59, the chains of Jasper, the sun-down town of Vidor. It is in this vein, the juxtaposition of idealism and terror, that I have selected five titles examining small town life.

The Bright Forever Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307209863
Availability: Special Order
Published: Broadway Books - April 4th, 2006

A 2006 finalist for a Pulitzer in fiction, Lee Martin’s THE BRIGHT FOREVER begins with the disappearance of a little girl in a small Indiana town. The novel explores her whereabouts, but in the process exposes all of the townspeople’s darkest secrets. Told in a series of monologues (think, AS I LAY DYING), Martin creates a space for readers to simply listen to what they’re not supposed to hear. 

Plainsong (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780375705854
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - August 22nd, 2000

From the start of the novel, Kent Haruf is not holding back. A National Book Award finalist in 1999, PLAINSONG grips you with a language raw and intense alongside the struggles that feel real to the touch (teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, economics, fatherhood). A cyclical novel through a series of small town residents in Colorado, PLAINSONG demonstrates Haruf’s expert craft and genuine empathy for the trials of the midwest. 

Winesburg, Ohio ( Novel ) by: Sherwood Anderson (Original Version) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781534725652
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform - June 17th, 2016

The inspiration for Haruf’s PLAINSONG, Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO is a sort of collage, a weaving of voices from the fictional Ohioan town, touching on the theme of isolation. The short story cycle takes on a minimal aesthetic, a great piece of literature that gives insight into the eventual styles of Hemingway and Carver. Deceptively simple in language, watch how Anderson can break you with as little words as possible.

Late Wife: Poems (Southern Messenger Poets) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780807130841
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: LSU Press - September 1st, 2005

Claudia Emerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection takes on the grief of a failed marriage, finding its setting in a small town where the "wife" is to begin again. With an almost autobiographical feel, it is hard to find more precise poems more exact and clear in their intension: a searching for the self inside a mundane, domestic landscape of billiard halls, horseshoe games, snakes, and memory where love has ended. LATE WIFE is Emerson’s masterpiece on surrender and redemption. 

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679735694
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - June 9th, 1992

Raymond Carver’s first collection of short stories, WILL YOU PLEASE BE QUIET, PLEASE? takes the reader through a series of small town, working class characters, peeling back their charm to expose a dark psyche. These are alcohol and voyeur driven pieces you can’t help but keep reading. Through deceptively simple plot lines and extreme minimalism, Carver gives the reader experiences so real they cement language’s ability to echo our own pain.