Peter Conners’ novella Emily Ate the Wind extends the experiments of such well-known, locally focused writers as Sherwood Anderson and Thorton Wilder. In both Winesburg, Ohio and Our Town, these writers chose to focus on a small town and its people. Their lives come to represent in a loose allegorical fashion the human experience. Conners extends these experiments by adding wild stylistic shifts and various framing devices that present a multi-voiced and multi-layered approach to his ‘local,’ known only as ‘The Bar’ somewhere in upstate New York.
The book is not an easy read. Composed of vignettes that usually interlock with each other in some manner, the novella allows for time to shift around quite a bit (the vignette on page 90, for instance, could come before the vignette on page 20). The first twenty-seven pages introduces us to seven characters—each in disparate vignettes with different settings and mini-plots. It is difficult to keep these characters straight, and, as Conners develops them, it is necessary to flip back to their original introduction in order to keep oriented. These characters do not seem happy as they drink heavily, take drugs, gamble, and are neglectful of their children. The ones who seem most balanced end up married: Amber, an elementary school teacher, and Dan, a regular at the bar who learns what marital ‘commitment’ is in all its implications when talking to Amber one night and falling in love.
Conners deploys several stylistic experiments such as using a refracted, indirect manner of representing raw and even gruesome events, which seems to be the predominant one in the collection. It is clear that Conners is a fine technician, as in this poetic description of the feelings of a 10-12 year old girl:
He was a fawn. Light willowy fawn dist bleached white in the sun. Fawn dust tickling his forearms and winking up at her from beneath the hem of his soccer team shorts. Lime-green tang of little boy sweat. Dirty ears. Perfectly formed, tanned, softly laughing ears (6)
It is not clear if they actually have sex (“always their secrets”), but their relationship is clearly erotic on some level. Conners’ comparison of the boy to a fawn displays both youthful vulnerability and his beauty from the girl’s perspective.
In ‘Thoughts About Money’ Conners creates a list constantly interrupted by thoughts about human relationships, “Ovation, new ratchet set, in-laws, laptop, angst, puppy, Sara, slice of pizza, $33.23, re-establish contact with new finance rates, bachelor party.” This is, on one level, a confusing one-page chapter for the thinking is attributed to no character. How are we to take this? That it is representative of the type of thinking all characters must go through? That we should attribute it to a specific character who gets married, since he mentions a bachelor party? That it is a type of anti-absorptive device, to use Charles Bernstein’s term, which prevents us from becoming ‘lost’ in the novella through its use of traditional ‘realism’? None of these questions supply adequate answers. What we are given is a list of expenses, thoughts about people who are not even characters, considerations varying from cocaine to horse trainer to sales rep. It seems that the chapter displays the inability of creating a simple budget. Other concerns constantly come into play, overwhelming any simplicity and at the center of budgets so often are other people: what can we do for them, what can they do to us, what will happen when people die. Money is an aspect in all human relations; no human relations can be imagined without at least some reference to money.
There is also the use of minimalist dialogue such as this fairly representative example of the dialogue we see in much of the book:
Just finished painting the Clark’s dining room. I’m done
They pay you?
Yeah, we’re set. When you done?
Couple two three hours. Soon as I finish this up. (77)
To be frank, it’s hard coming to terms with what this kind of dialogue accomplishes. Of course, it is the way we quite frequently talk but this alone is not a reason for putting it in a story. Generally, dialogue is used specifically to further a story with little regard for ‘realism,’ even in the most ‘realistic’ stories, however this stylistic device doesn’t work well. Often readers want to skip to the end of the conversations in order to get back to the action, because the conversations were surely not action.
Conners inserts three fascinating vignettes written by his father into the story. They concern stories set in Pittsburgh from 1890 – 1920. One is about a Scottish WWI vet who survived the war only to die while on the job in Pittsburgh. Conners’ father’s style seems to be based on verbal storytelling: simple sentence structures, a certain level of generality, few specific instances of imagery:
For Tom was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, in battle after battle charging out of the trenches to attack German machine guns, barbed wire, and massed artillery. In futile attack after attack, men died around him by the tens of thousands (29)
Notice that, instead of using specific imagery, Conners’ father uses intensifiers and generalizations, which work fine with oral storytelling. They work fine in this book, too; these stories intersect and frame the stories of the main characters in the book. It is almost like a fifth dimension that cuts across the novelistic world Conners created allowing us a small peek into a quite different world.
Conners’ stylistic experiments extend ‘the local’ in several ways. One is that it insists on there being no single narrative line that will account for all perspectives such as the chapter featuring the letters of a scared spouse to a soldier, Lucas, in Korea. After telling Lucas that she is leaving him for Grover Gray, she writes,
Well I know you and Grover played football before his leg went and I remember you think highly of him. I don’t know if that is better or worse for this but I don’t see I have much choice for us now (57)
In another section of the book, we find Lucas at the bar with a speaker for a baby monitor. We learn that his granddaughter is at his house two blocks away and this is how he keeps dibs on her. Obviously, the letters help us to understand why a spouse would do something so cruel to Lucas: he was himself inexcusably careless. Another way the local is extended is in revealing that focusing only on a single place and time is inaccurate; any time and place is riddled with connections to other places, to the past, and even to the future — in the form of expectations and hopes and so on governing our current behavior. Finally, we see the definite frame that contains the stories associated with ‘The Bar,’ but we also see stories that penetrate that frame, not breaking it but moving through it. The edge of the frame becomes not the end of the local, but the permeable border of it.
Jefferson Hansen lives in Minneapolis. He is the author of Lyrical Eddies: Poems after the music of Marilyn Crispell, along with a number of chapbooks. Check out his review and interview blog at experimentalfictionpoetry.blogspot.com.