March 11: “New Era, Michigan” by Adam Schuitema

Usually, I’m the first one to yell, “TGIF!” at the top of my lungs, as I’m as much up for the weekend as the next person. When your Spring Break adventure comes to an end, however, you start to question all the times you’ve wanted time to pass more quickly, when you’ve anticipated the next thing instead of appreciating the current thing. Maybe this is all too deep for Spring Break! Week at Story336, but a week of hanging with a bunch of college dudes makes you think about getting older, about your own mortality, about living in the moment and making it the very best moment it can be. And then doing it to the next moment. And the next. And the next.

Still, I can’t wait until Spring Break next year! We’re not even out of Florida yet—yes, we found the Skylark in the Daytona Beach city impound—and already I’ve put next year’s Spring Break into the calendar on my iPhone. I don’t want to say I’m counting down yet, but in one year, minus four hours, I’ll be back right back here, debasing myself in the name of cheap thrills and dead brain cells. That nearly one year will be agony, having to live my life not being on Spring Break, but knowing that I’ll be back here in Daytona in a year with Jimmy D, Cornhole, Vinnie, and the gang gives me hope. Spring Break!!!

Driving up I-75, I had the chance to read from Adam Schuitema’s 2010 collection Freshwater Boys, a book of stories about people living around lakes—freshwater—in the state of Michigan, where Schuitema’s from, where he got his degrees, and where he teaches. Freshwater culture often goes ignored in the pop culture world, as most people associate living by the water with oceans, fed mostly by Hollywood. Baywatch, for example, could have taken place in Chicago or even Cleveland, technically, only the shark-related episodes (which I’m guessing exist) a real problem. But who wants to watch a beach show about a bunch of Midwesterners and their calm, unclear waters? Imagine Pamela Anderson patrolling the shores of Lake Erie in khakis and sensible shoes, chasing down fishermen who exceed the walleye take for the season, or David Hasselhoff, doughy and pale, warning kids to wait a half an hour before entering the water. Maybe that version of Baywatch doesn’t become an international phenomenon, but I would have loved to at least seen a one-off episode. If every other TV show can spend at least one week in Hawaii or some other tropical paradise, why couldn’t Baywatch spend one in Grand Rapids or Shaker Heights?

In any case, I like Schuitema’s book a lot because it does cover a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and because I’m a Midwesterner, I recognize a lot of the regional eccentricities that make Michigan, and any place, special. The story I’m writing about today, “New Era, Michigan,” has that feel, as Schuitema begins the piece by explaining the town’s name, how the city’s founders were hopeful people, looking forward, wanting a better tomorrow. New Era didn’t become Babylon, but the name is less than ironic, at least in Schuitema’s estimation. Real peple do real things and are still hopeful. It’s like every other town in America, only with a more forward-sounding name.

Darryl Pickle is the young protagonist of “New Era, Michigan,” a kid who thinks about the name of his town because, he admits, with a name like Pickle, you think about names a lot. Darryl—who shows up in other stories in the collection that I read—thinks about a lot of things. He’s a classic loner, sitting by himself at lunch, spending his days off on his bike, in the woods, cataloguing the animals he’s seen in a journal (he knows exactly how many deer he’s seen in his entire life), and sketching whatever he spots. He hangs out with his older brother Jesse once in a while, but takes every opportunity to be alone, to be in his head, to contemplate everything that he sees.

When the local hermit dies, Darryl takes particular interest. The hermit lived in an old school bus on the other end of town, at the top of a gigantic hill, and for years, he’s been a local legend. Really, he’s just a guy who keeps to himself and lives in a bus, but of course, all the kids in town think he’s a serial killer, that his land is filled with the skeletons of his numerous victims. Darryl, recognizing a like-minded soul, wants to investigate his old bus, not because of dares or for shock value, but because he wants to see how he lives, what made him a hermit. Does he think this is his future? He and Jesse ride over to the bus, break inside, and scout out the dead man’s abode.

Something I always point out to my students is this very Pandora’s box-type situation, someone entering a strange place, completely unaware of what they’re going to find once inside. I remind them that anything can be inside that door, and once it’s opened, they have a responsibility, as a storyteller, to follow through with a pay off. Are there skeletons inside the hermit’s bus? Will Darryl and Jesse be assaulted by some left-behind n’er-do-well, perhaps the hermit’s Igor, burning the last victims’ bodies in a furnace? Schuitema has more control than that. That’s not the story that he set up for Darryl, and while I was a bit nervous about what would happen as Darryl crossed the threshold, I’m glad he didn’t find Buffalo Bill’s basement lair from Silence of the Lambs. What he finds instead, speaks more to Darryl as a character, more to Schuitema as a writer, than any slasher or suspense film could. Schuitema really delivers on this premise, and Darryl’s arc as a person—at least in this story—feels complete, original, and satisfying.

It’s funny to be writing about freshwater stories after being woken the last couple of mornings by the salty ocean tide. Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema is the perfect book, in a way, to harken me back to the flyover, away from the glamour of the ocean, the call of the sirens. I got so into the book and writing this blog that I forgot to remind Jimmy D to pull over in Georgia and pick up Bizquick, who never made it off that farm he was stuck at for the last four days. We circled back—just forty miles or so—of course not telling Bizquick we forgot him again. He’s mad enough at us, anyway, but we’re letting him sit up front, no one on his lap, and he’s starting to come around.10583831_10103312168340100_297937183898310123_n

 

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  1. Pingback: May 17: “The Source of Life” by Beth Bosworth – Story366

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