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Book Reviews


When I worked there, Syracuse University didn’t have an English Department but instead offered a Textual Studies Department. This was a response to the traditional historical coverage model’s severe and expanding failings. Why concentrate solely on American, British, and Irish writers? What about Canadian, Australian, Indian, Jamaican, South African writing? Were these works not “English” literature? Also, the demographics of the writers actually read seemed limited too. The “textual studies” model replaced the specific hierarchical “classics” curriculum with students employing different ways to read any text. One semester, no Shakespeare courses offered. The next there would be four—a Feminist or a Marxist interpretation, or Queer or Race based theory. These “Sites of Contestation” (gender, race, class, sexuality—identity characteristics) were argued over, championed, dismissed, revised. The focus had shifted from the classic book, poem, play to a personal, political, theoretical, and cultural critique.  

As a “creative” writer in such a department, I recognized I was on the periphery of the discussion, but I couldn’t help kidding (was I kidding?) my colleagues from time to time. “What about ‘Place?’” I would ask them. Might locale, region, neighborhood, or borough also be considered a “Site of Contestation”? After all, political power, the vote, is vested by where one lives. When I list the descriptors of my identity (white, cis-male, straight, middle-class) I do often also lead with “Hoosier.” My colleagues back then were pretty skeptical. Regional Literature had already been demoted to mere Local Color and replaced, a century ago (due to mass communication, increased mobility, and internal migrations from farm to factory, rural to urban) by an “American” Literature. 

Float Up, Sing Down, Laird Hunt’s new book of connected stories, set in rural Indiana, got me thinking once again about “Regional” writing and “American” literature. Each story, focused on a day in the life of one of fourteen characters, is a well-made realistic transparent fiction that effortlessly transports the reader into the sweet spot of the waking dream. Each story, too, addresses expertly the “deep” character of the character, the sub- and un- conscious engines of trauma or bliss that produce the telling gestures of transformation and the double takes of epiphany. The details are exact, crisp, and charged. Hunt’s eye for them and his hand at rendering are exquisite. The book flap copy makes comparisons to the “tradition” of Cather and Anderson. I would add to the contemporaries also cited, Elizabeth Strout and Edward P. Jones, Louise Erdrich and Janet Kauffman. The case being made is that Float Up, Sing Down is a work of “American” fiction. That might be true. Probably is true. But I would also locate the book in its locale. I read the book as a new kind of invigorated unapologetic Neo-Regionalism, the stories written for people of the region more than about the region’s people. If you would like me to get theoretical—let’s go Post-Colonial, a new Site of Contestation. Float Up, Sing Down does many things well, but I most admire its New Hoosierness. 

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne and attended Butler University, graduating from Indiana University in 1977. He taught creative writing for 40 years at Iowa State, Syracuse and Harvard Universities, and retired from the University of Alabama in 2020. He is the author or editor of 20 books almost all set in Indiana and the Midwest including Alive and Dead in Indiana, The Blue Guide to Indiana, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List and The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne

Laird Hunt is the author of eight novels, including the 2021 National Book Award finalist Zorrie. He is the winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, the Bridge Prize and a finalist for both the Pen/Faulkner and the Prix Femina Étranger. Hunt’s reviews and essays have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Los Angeles Times, and his fiction and translations have appeared in many literary journals in the United States and abroad. A former United Nations press officer who was raised on a farm in central Indiana, he now lives in Providence where he teaches in Brown University’s Literary Arts Program. 

Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.