Although he is a well-known figure among other writers, widely published in literary magazines both prestigious and more obscure, and popular on what might be called the “reading circuit,” Michael Martone has during his now rather lengthy career received few reviews in the mainstream literary press. This cannot be due to the quality of his fiction—which is very high indeed—but that he is primarily a writer of short fiction (as well as two novellas, themselves largely comprised of unified shorter pieces adding up to a whole), could perhaps partly explain his absence from the most-read book pages, where novels are rewarded the majority of review coverage.
Perhaps Martone is considered primarily a humorist, a Twain-like figure (on a smaller scale), whose books emphasize jokes, wordplay, weird situations and wacky conceits: a parodic travel guide with invented facts and attractions, a collection of authorial contributor’s notes, some of which conflict in their details with some of the others. Also like Twain, Martone is strongly focused on evoking place, in this case the state of Indiana—more precisely, the northeast corner of Indiana, where is located Martone’s home state of Fort Wayne. Thus Martone can easily enough be dismissed as a regionalist, although his portrayal of Indiana, and the Midwest more generally, is hardly an exercise in “local color,” even though many of the characters Martone creates, in stories that are often quite brief, could indeed be called colorful. What Martone offers us in his fiction is not so much the “real” Indiana but a version he has transformed into a fanciful heartland, one that seems no less real for its apparent incongruities.
Martone has cited Edith Hamilton (from Indiana) as a formative influence on his depiction of their mutual home state: her renderings of Greek mythological stories suggested that telling stories about Indiana might bestow on these midwestern characters the sort of heightened emblematic significance we find in the figures depicted in Hamilton’s Mythology, even if such characters’ interests are mundane and their actions not always exactly heroic. Thus, while it would be patronizing to say that Martone seems to express affection for his characters, they are nevertheless granted an integrity in their circumstances and outlook as Midwesterners that allow them both to assert their individual identities and to seem representative of a midwestern (or Indiana) experience of the world. Even Dan Quayle, whose “pensées” are featured in Martone’s series of stories about the Indiana-born Vice-President, is not presented as an object of ridicule but a man sincerely influenced by his Indiana roots, fully aware of his public image and secondary status as Vice-President, who, in one story, silently indulges his frustration by imagining all of the audience members naked as he presides over the State of the Union speech.
It would not really be accurate either to call pieces such as “Pensées of Dan Quayle” satirical, although Martone’s fiction certainly is dominantly comic in tone, albeit less one of outright hilarity than a more restrained, implicit kind of humor that arises from character and situation: in simply being themselves, Martone’s characters take up the kind of ordinary, recognizable activities—setting up the searchlight displays that announce the new fall Chevrolets have arrived, observing a school carnival, with it obligatory fish ponds and cake walks—that might elicit a knowing smile, not a belly laugh, and does not at all raise the suspicion that the characters in carrying out these activities are being subjected to mockery. Really no other current American writer manages to effect quite such a union of an underlying realism of character and place with an inevitably distorting comic outlook as successfully or distinctively as Michael Martone, especially in the short fictions collected in his earliest books (through perhaps Seeing Eye, published in 1985).
Beginning with The Blue Guide to Indiana (2001), Martone began offering more formally unified works—if not novels, then longer fictions with a readily discernible unifying device. While the earlier works were surely not altogether conventional in form (Martone is not really a storyteller in the strictest sense), these later books are more audacious and adventurous. The Blue Guide to Indiana is an ersatz travel guide (named after the actual “blue guides”), full of history, notable sites, and available attractions that purport to acquaint the reader with the Hoosier state, but really describes an Indiana of twisted folklore and invented history, not the actually existing place. One might call the book a novella, but this requires accepting that such a work might not include any characters (much less plot) in the conventional sense at all. Michael Martone (2005) has one character, the author himself (or a slyly fictionalized version of the author), on whose biographical background the book performs numerous variations in the form of Author’s Notes, in the process telling us many often contradictory things about “Michael Martone,” although finally what we learn about Michael Martone, about the influence of his mother, and about Fort Wayne, Indiana add up to a relatively comprehensive account of the collective existence maintained among the three.
Four for a Quarter (2011) is more plainly a collection of shorter pieces, but it too employs an artificial device to effectively integrate the parts into an aesthetically satisfying whole. As the title suggests, the number 4 is used freely as a structural and thematic motif—all of the stories come in four parts, are riffs on familiar phrases employing “four” (“Four Eyes,” “Four Dead in Ohio”) or simply treat subjects that conveniently involve fours (“Four Fifth Beatles,” “Mount Rushmore”). This unifying device might seem arbitrary, but it enables a series of stories that provide dynamic and sometimes surprising juxtapositions and variations, as well as an opportunity for some of Martone’s most supple and evocative writing, from demotic first-person narratives to more lyrical prose, as in this description of the accumulation of cotton lint in an Alabama autumn (Martone now lives in Alabama):
. . .The lint escapes the screened-in trailer trucks of the raw harvest or gets kicked up by the gleaning in the fields and threads itself into the wind, winds up coating anything with a burr enough to stick. It snows, little squalls of it accumulated in the niches, the pockets fall has turned out. It is snow that is not snow, a white remainder, until it dyes itself with all the other detritus, becoming the glue of bark and twigs and leaves, leaving nothing but filth, tilth, a kind of felt.
Martone’s most recent book, The Moon Over Wapakoneta (2019), is less intricately structured than Four for a Quarter, although its subtitle does indicate the loose connection among the stories: “Fictions and Science Fictions from Indiana and Beyond.” Not all of the stories in the book are strictly science fiction by any means, but even those that are (“Amish in Space”) seem not so much like full-fledged attempts to appropriate this genre than the sort of flights of fancy anchored in the ordinary we might otherwise expect from Michael Martone. Like Four for a Quarter, The Moon Over Wapakoneta is less exclusively focused on Indiana and the Midwest than Martone’s earliest collections of short fiction, putting less emphasis on setting and more on formal ingenuity and variety. If only a few of the stories might really qualify as science fiction (besides “Amish in Space”—literally about a spaceship carrying a colony of Amish through space on a journey that has already lasted centuries—the title story and “20th Century” are both stories set in an indefinite future), others, such as “The Digitally Enhanced Image of Cary Grant Appears in a Cornfield in Indiana,” an exercise in the paranormal or “A Bucket of Warm Spit,” a retelling of Jack in the Beanstalk with a drought-stricken midwestern farmer as Jack are more accurately described as engaging in imaginative embellishment through forms of fabulation.
“The Moon Over Wapakoneta,” the first story in the book, projects into a future containing some of the usual sci-fi elements—travel to other planets (in this case the Moon), hyper-developed technology, etc.—but most of the futuristic imagery is merely alluded to, not really developed into a story about the future. Indeed, what is most striking about the story is the extent to which events in the future seem to have made very little difference to the present life of its protagonist. Wapakoneta is a town in Ohio, just across the border from Indiana, where the narrator-protagonist lives, traveling back and forth to Wapakoneta in order to experience a kind of mundane time travel—Indiana being an hour behind Ohio in clock time. The narrator, who announces immediately that he is drunk (“I am always drunk”), thinks of himself as “the last man on earth” and throughout the story contemplates the moon over Wapakoneta, revealing through his reveries a sense of alienation both from the now colonized moon and from his own current circumstances, drifting between rural Indiana and rural Ohio. “What part of the moon is the backwater part?” he wonders at one point, obviously considering his own situation. He further “imagines some Podunk place” on the moon “where the slack-jawed inhabitants can’t begin to imagine being pioneers, being heroes.”
“The Digitally Enhanced Image of Cary Grant,” another Indiana story, is a tale of the uncanny rathe than outright science fiction. A family driving through the cornfields of Indiana witnesses the apparition of Cary Grant in his role as Roger Thornhill in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, fleeing from a pursuing crop duster plane, as Thornhill famously does in the film. If “The Moon Over Wapakoneta” conveys a palpable sense of emptiness and isolation, this story is lighter in tone, closer to the kind of tongue-in-cheek depictions of Indiana we get in most of Martone’s stories; in this case, the isolation of Ade, Indiana (known previously as the location for the scene rendered in the apparition) is made rather more poignant, the ghost of Cary Grant providing this place with its only chance of receiving renewed attention. The other Indiana-based story in this book, “Versed,” is arguably one that most clearly illustrates the predominant tone in Martone’s fiction about the state. The situation is faintly comic: the narrator works for a company in Fort Wayne that manufactures a sedative used in colonoscopy exams. Throughout the story he observes a fellow who lives next to the office park mow his lawn, and contemplates the paintings of Modigliani, reproductions of which are hung around the office. (At one point in the story, the narrator pauses to also inform us that on their lunch break, he and his coworkers like to go outside and “dowse,” because “we like the exercise, being led by a stick this way and that.”) The story at times becomes almost elegiac, however, as when the narrator reflects on the office park’s location at what was once the outermost boundary of Fort Wayne, now extended so much farther that the Bypass “now bypasses nothing,” and the narrator recalls how in his youth this was an area where lovers parked and, of course, curious teenagers lay in ambush for them.
If only a few of the stories in The Moon Over Wapakoneta directly invoke the Indiana setting, others are clearly motivated by their subjects’ connection to the state, including stories about the Indiana writer Gene Stratton-Porter and Philo T. Farnsworth, an inventor of early television technology whose company was located in Fort Wayne. In the brief “The Blues of the Limberlost by Vladimir Nabokov,” “Michael Martone” purports to review a posthumous work by Nabokov written in response to the writer’s butterfly collecting trip to Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. The remaining stories in the book highlight Martone’s formal dexterity, which has always accompanied his treatment of “the Heartland,” as it is officially called in the futuristic “20th Century.” Martone has called himself a “formalist” rather than an experimental writer (although his publisher is FC2, a press long associated with experimental fiction), and while Four For a Quarter shows Martone forging form on a larger scale—a whole assembled from its parts—The Moon Over Wapakoneta, in stories like “The Man’s Watch” (made from a list), “App ro x im ate” (presented in facing columns), and “A Convention of Reanimated William Faulkners” (with graphic accompaniments), most prominently features unconventional exercises in form. The final story, “MM + MM + MM + MM: Footnotes in Search of a Story” (followed by an Author’s Note a la Michael Martone) concludes the book with an explicitly metafictional flourish, but much of Martone’s later work has incorporated a kind of prankishly blatant self-reflexivity, reminiscent perhaps of Martone’s mentor, John Barth.
The inherently playful (although not frivolous) tone of The Moon Over Wapakoneta makes it fully representative of Michael Martone’s fiction in its overall approach, although readers less familiar with Martone’s work would certainly want also to sample the early stories as collected in Double Wide (2007), as well as The Blue Guide to Indiana and Michael Martone. These books especially reward the reader interested in the literature of the Midwest, from a writer with an engaging and original vision of the Midwestern sensibility.