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Not From Around Here

Mike Magnuson churns his Wisconsin upbringing into a writing style that's both nakedly plainspoken and artfully unreal.

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Mike Magnuson, author, professor, and Wisconsin native, spends nights out drinking Molson in the Cellar in Carbondale, Illinois, his new home. He says it's the only tavern in town he can stand. One Saturday around ten, students from his classes at Southern Illinois University straggled in and camped around his table. The guys did tequila shots with him; the girls pretended to hate him, then had a few beers and named him the greatest creative writing teacher on earth. The lit crowd was indistinguishable from anyone else in the dark, plywood-paneled basement bar. The other drinkers could've been students too, or welders, or maybe trailer hippies--everyone was dressed about alike. An older guy wandered in with his wife, started slurping, and turned out to be a Guggenheim fellow, poet Rodney Jones. He teaches at SIU too, and Magnuson says he's no stranger to impromptu creative-writing bacchanalia.

Jones's wife, Gloria, who doesn't tag along often, made it clear she was all about art. No matter what you asked her, she hauled the conversation back to self-knowledge and the duality--the unreality!--of life. Ask how she likes Carbondale, get an annoyed dissertation. "I have never felt like I controlled my life," she said, gesturing prettily and wrinkling her nose.

The Great Poet himself warned passersby about Magnuson. "Don't tell him the truth," said Jones. "No matter what he asks you, remember: you're a Nicaraguan with character." Magnuson was crabbing about Rick Moody. He'd heard the author of The Ice Storm read in Oxford, Mississippi, recently and was as unimpressed as ever by the latter-day Carver routine--mundane events, whacked-off sentences, kindergarten-level syntax--that gets Moody hailed as a genius. Magnuson fumed. "Rick Moody's got this piece of shit I heard him read--I wanted to fire on him just to get myself killed." Magnuson and a buddy followed Moody around during the opening acts, making fun of his brand-new black Chuck Taylors. "Don't get me wrong, the Chuckie Taylor is a fine shoe," Magnuson said. "But don't buy a new pair of Chuckies just for the occasion. ASSHOLE!"

His envy's thick but not unsympathetic. Most of Magnuson's media notice pegs his work as quaint, barely articulate backwoods rambling, though he's gone through the BS of getting the MFA, becoming a professor, and writing two works of fiction, The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels. He does use a lot of dialect, but it sounds smart (not "wise") and natural; his style at its best flutters between the cramped, defensive language of social interaction and the poetic, open locutions of internal monologue. Now his publisher, HarperCollins, has prodded him to jump on the memoir train with Lummox: The Evolution of a Man.

If you read the Lummox press packet and dust jacket flaps that somebody who wasn't Magnuson was paid to write, this is what you learn about the guy: He looks like an idiot. He talks like an idiot--he has a ghastly Wisconsin hick accent. "You see," the blurb writer tells you, "Mike is trapped in a lummox body, but has a mind for the world beyond the lummox world." He likes lots of beer! He is often confused by the behavior of females! Yet he can think and feel! They make him sound like a typing monkey.

"The whole 'Wisconsin writer' thing is driving me crazy more than you can believe," says Magnuson. "'So you like drinking beer?' Get this--I go deer hunting every year. So my agent says, 'Write a book about deer hunting!' Why the fuck should I do that? It's so normal--who cares!

"I've got to dig my way out of that shit. I can't get my work reviewed as actual literature! One woman at a reading in Madison asked me, 'Do you feel like an exotic?' The bookstore people laughed, but she was right on the money."

Now, sure, you need a gimmick to get noticed. And it's true: he's a big strong blond who likes to drink. He has a ya-hey accent--how are you going to get rid of that? So you might as well market it; don't make yourself look like an idiot by pretending it isn't there. Do what you can. He recently sold an article to GQ (published in the May 2002 issue)--part of the deal was posing naked on a bicycle.

All things considered, Magnuson's not doing too badly. His first try at college was a failure and he lost most of his 20s to factories and booze, but he pulled it together, got a couple of degrees, and now has a toehold in the world of letters. How many aspiring writers ever see their names on the cover of a book, however ineptly hawked? "When that first book comes out, you feel like a rock star," he says. "But after that--eh. Even if you make it in this field, it's such a not-making-it kind of making it.

"Nobody really makes it unless they spend at least a year in New York City drinking at the right parties with the right people. You have to go get an internship and meet them." As most publishing internships are uncompensated, these aren't dues your average college graduate can hope to pay. "You spend $300,000 on that internship and you hope to just make it back--no interest. You can't be a poor person and get very far in that world. I'd love to go and live there for a year, but..." He shrugs. He and his wife, Beth, have two daughters and a neat but cramped house in Carbondale; his sabbatical pay, he claims, would never cover his expenses in Manhattan. "I don't think [Moody's] a worse writer than me. I just don't think he's any better. And the reason he's doing so well is because of the contacts, where he's from."

Magnuson admits he got his own book deal in part through people he met at graduate school in Gainesville, Florida. "I have a few contacts, maybe 25 writers," he says. He met the majority of them when he got a grant to attend the prestigious Bread Loaf writers' conference in Vermont. "Which, incidentally, I only won because I knew somebody on the inside--I went to grad school with him. It had to have been an inside hand job."

But those connections aren't getting him on the fast track: a few months after the release of his first novel, he says, HarperCollins seemed to have given up promoting it altogether. "Hundreds and hundreds of books go out every year, and they lose money on most of them. They're throwing you out there to tank in the first place." Magnuson wasn't entirely happy with his second book, and neither was the publisher, so he says he can understand the lack of push in that case. The flaccid launch of Lummox has as much to do with bad luck as with east-coast cabals: last fall, Magnuson's editor, Robert Jones, who had recently been promoted to editor in chief, suddenly died. "His cancer was in remission, we were all set to go. Then I just checked my E-mail--he'd gotten a cold and dropped dead." The funeral was September 10. "This is awful and petty," Magnuson says, "but I was sitting there watching TV as the buildings fell--they weren't even down yet--and the first thing I thought was 'I just lost 200 grand! No one's gonna give a shit about this stuff ever again.' I was scheduled for the Today show, Howard Stern was going to promote the book. That's all gone, and it's going to take several years to get back to speed. That oughta be fun. But I've still got the job--the dream job in the trailer park capital! I'm about to turn 39. I'm worried. If you ain't got anything by 45 or so, it ain't gonna happen."

A market for salt-of-the-earth bullshit exists, Magnuson says; unfortunately, southern writers seem to have a lock on it. "I've been told the New Englanders and the southerners have a deal that's something like this: The south can write this stuff making fun of itself, and the New Englanders will pay a lot of money for it. Why, just because some assholes in New York are telling everybody the next big thing's coming out--AGAIN--do I have to spend 25 bucks to hear the latest 'southern sensation' talk about donkeys and country ham? 'Ooooo-weee, here's another book about eating grits!' But that's the trap you can get in when you think the way I think. Because you want to be declared one of the new geniuses of the month too."

His token northerner is Garrison Keillor. "He's the only one who's allowed, and yeah, it's all that 'ha ha look how dumb and down-home we are' kind of shit. And he's from Minnesota! Minnesota ain't nothin' compared to the way people live in Wisconsin."

Magnuson tried to avoid the self-pity and rationalization that prey on memoirs by couching Lummox in the third person, for humor and distance, and in a disclaimer following the text he admits he did a certain amount of fact mangling to avoid embarrassing old acquaintances who have cleaned up their acts. But Magnuson, by vocation a fiction writer, not a diarist, said he couldn't help fudging even more to make "Mike's" life story more coherent. "It's a weird kind of third person," he says. "The way I write, it should be obvious it's a character I've created--it's language, it's crafted. But I'm not crafted."

Many of the howling backwoodsisms and gestures of authorial braggadocio in Lummox are delivered with such overt, almost hostile irony it's hard to believe some critics take them at face value. Since it's marketed as a memoir, people understandably assume "the Lummox" corresponds precisely to the inner Mike Magnuson; readers seem to assume any literature is unprocessed autobiography, even if the plot is blatantly fantastic.

But he's sure an audience exists for his stuff. "There's just no conception of how to meet it." In Wisconsin, where he thinks his material is most likely to find a sympathetic readership that won't treat it as kitsch, there's not much cafe society. "Reading's just not what you do in Wisconsin. So I try to write literary stories that are accessible to people who aren't used to reading literature." Sometimes this policy translates into a platitude, but mostly Magnuson delivers. His stories are as smooth and easy to read as good genre fiction, but meaty, funny, and melancholy. Unfortunately, HarperCollins has yet to release a paperback, and the hardcover's a bit pricey for the north woods market. Magnuson's also disappointed that the publisher didn't send his book-release tour through Chicago. "People in Chicago pretty much speak my dialect. We understand each other right away."

The original draft of Lummox, Magnuson claims, was a lot lighter on the cuss and swagger. "It was more restrained, and had a lot more apologies for whatever I did when I was younger. But they said that won't sell, so they had me do something more obnoxious. I wonder if I'll ever get to write another novel."

He was happier with The Right Man for the Job, his first book, about a guy from Wisconsin, Gunnar, who follows a woman to Ohio, then pines for his homeland with warped nostalgia as his life goes to hell. "That's the one," he says. "I really got to do it the way I wanted." The stereotypical midwestern stoicism works beautifully: the novel's filled with miserable people but leans neither on the maudlin nor the anesthetic.

Magnuson hasn't gone out of his way to be weird, but he's developed his own aesthetic and common sense. His narrators sound true, and it isn't because he's gleaned mystery folk power from scarfing Colby cheese. When he transcribes Gunnar's thoughts--"Work, as it's always been for me, from every day of eight years at Peterson Products to my first job stocking the frozen-food aisle at Piggly Wiggly, long ago, when I was sixteen, is about friends and doing your best not to disappoint them. Nobody at work wants to be a piece of crap"--the odd syntax and swearing work because Magnuson has an enviable ear and he reads and writes a lot (or at least "Mike" does in Lummox).

When the prose isn't perfect it's not that it's devolving into Magnuson's quaint and excusable home tongue, it's leaning on MFA styles, the broken contractions and dropped articles that are supposed to make things sound more weighty. "For this moment we dance, sing. We do not think about dead dogs and furniture." Why would it be so bad to leave "and" and "don't" in these sentences? The tricks are just as weak in Rick Moody's stories--but they don't stand out when strings of them form the entire text. Which may raise the question: was growing up in an isolated area in fact good, in the end, for Magnuson's prose style? What's he whining about, then? Doesn't he have faith that the philistines will catch on someday? If east-coast insiders like Moody and self-promoters like Dave Eggers don't deserve their success, who's going to remember them in a hundred years?

"I will," he growled, nearly knocking over his beer as he crushed his pack of cigarettes.

For more on Carbondale see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Branda Keehn, Ann Sterzinger.

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