February 27: “Super America” by Anne Panning

Did somebody just put a soft taco shell around a club sandwich? Because that, my friends, is a wrap.

Today concludes the first of at least two Bowling Green alum weeks I’ll do this year at Story366, highlighting work by the students, alumni, and faculty of my MFA alma mater. I won’t say that this week has been as fun as my high school reunion—I didn’t spend two hours talking to you, readers, only to realize my shirt was on backwards—but it was nice to think about some of these authors, read some work I hadn’t before, and see all the likes on the FB links from people I haven’t spoken to in a while. Tomorrow I return to my more random selections, as the stack of books to read from is growing, and now that I’m practically two months through, I’m starting to think I just might pull this project off.

For today’s post, I had the pleasure of reading from Anne Panning’s super collection Super America, the third winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award I’ve reviewed since last Saturday (E.J. Levy and Monica McFawn being the others). This is one of the top awards in short fiction contest world and I’ve been impressed with the consistent quality of all three collections—the University of Georgia Press has done a great service, for two writers a year, for some time now, a service that just keeps on serving story-readers like me who can’t get enough.

Panning is the first person I’ve reviewed this week who I didn’t know at Bowling Green, as she graduated three or four years before I did. This means that Panning was in one of the last classes at BG to study under the original faculty guard, the professors who helped start the program in the sixties and stayed on until the nineties, retiring between my and Panning’s tenure. Perhaps Panning and I had really different experiences at BG, ran in different circles, and when we tell stories about the program, they have some different characters. That’s not to say that the aesthetic of Panning’s work, or those alum from her time and before, is notably different from mine and mine constituents’, but it’s interesting to think about. Surely, the Raymond Carver era or the Tobias Wolff era of Syracuse is different from the George Saunders era, so maybe.

Today I’m discussing another title story, “Super America,” because I love doing title stories and also because I really love this piece. I actually love all three stories I’ve read from Super America so far, as “Hillbillies” and “All-U-Can Eat” would have been just as easy to write about. Not only is “Super America” a title story, but it’s also a father-son story, which I love, as I had a dad and have sons and connect to those super easily.

“Super America” is told from the POV of the son, in this case Theo, an acting student at college who just got picked up by his dad for a holiday break. Theo is a pragmatic kid, for a college acting major, as he’s been trained to see the ridiculousness that is his father and his father’s antics. Dad and Mom are divorced, have been since Theo was twelve, and since, the dad has been concocted hair-brained schemes to get her back. One includes putting on a dress with a pillow underneath, simulating pregnancy, then singing to her outside her window. The fact the mom had just gone through an emergency hysterectomy defines the dad’s attempts as ultimately tragic, while Panning’s placement of this event on Theo’s fifteenth birthday adds a true, zany detail, the perfect cherry on top of the bizarre, ineffective, and disturbed gesture. This, in a nutshell, has been Theo’s life, and it’s no wonder he takes everything his father says with a grain of salt, expecting every word to be a lie, or something to set up another adventure.

One the way home, Dad and Theo stop at a Super America—a large truck stop chain, in case you’re wondering—for a bite to eat and a bathroom break. The dad disappears, only to show up down the road, wandering around, Theo forced to search him out. After another stop or two, the pair end up at a strange, foul-smelling apartment (it smells like hot light bulbs, another line that makes me love Panning), where the dad reveals his latest scheme. Get ready for it: He’s at the apartment to pick up a miniature pony and a lemur—because this woman has just these very things and he’s found this out somehow—and he’s going to teach the lemur to ride the pony. That is his plan. He’s going to give them to Theo’s mom, she’s going to take him back, and then maybe Theo can jumpstart his acting career by going on Letterman with the act, you know, because that’s how Olivier was discovered. Pretty much.

Theo is mostly a sideline player, watching his father’s plots, and his father himself, unravel. Years of this bullshit have seasoned him, however, into a skeptic, and little tweaks in his behavior can easily be attributed to having his dad as a dad. For example, Theo mentions some casual cocaine use, and even for a college kid, a reader can’t help but connect this to the dad, to that moment he just disappeared from the Super America and showed up on the side of the road, sweating and disguised in a hoodie. The narrator, the voice, the attitude of “Super America” are formed and informed by the shenanigans that Panning creates, the ones that are so much fun to read, that made me read on and on.

I’ve met Anne Panning several times over the years. She’s a super-nice person, a dedicated professor at SUNY-Brockport, and a talented-as-hell short story writer. I’m so happy I picked up Super America, which I love, more even than her first book, The Price of Eggs, which I read a million years ago. It’s been fun to focus on some friends this week, writers with a common background, and later this year, it’ll be great to do it again.

Anne Panning