February 2010

Michael Schaub


Fly-Over State by Emma Straub

For all of us who grew up in that vast area between the east and west coasts of the United States (It exists! I swear!), there aren't too many things more instantly eye-roll-inducing than a native New Yorker using the term "fly-over state." You get the feeling that Americans who would never voluntarily venture anywhere between the Alleghenies and the Rockies -- except maybe to eat at a molecular gastronomy restaurant in Chicago, or go shopping in the department stores of Dallas -- somehow suspect the Midwest of having nothing but overweight people dressed in flannels bearing John Mellencamp CDs from Wal-Mart, and casseroles with Cheez Whiz  and those canned fried onions. Which is, of course, a completely inaccurate stereotype. I mean, except for Indiana, which actually is exactly like that. (Kidding, Hoosiers!)

Emma Straub is a native New Yorker, but any suspicion that she harbors some anti-Midwest snobbery will pretty much evaporate once you finish her funny, charming, and compulsively readable Fly-Over State, the story of two East Coast transplants to Wisconsin. Fly-Over State exists somewhere in the territory between short story and novella -- a fly-over genre, I guess. It's less than forty pages, packaged in this edition with an additional short work of fiction, "Hot Springs Eternal." Straub does in just a few pages what other, much older writers have been unsuccessfully trying to do for a long while -- write an affectionate portrait of life in the Midwest from an outsider's perspective, with a keen sense of humor and without a hint of condescension.

Sophie is a writer married to James, a college teacher who finds employment at a school in Wisconsin. They're both East Coast natives, unsure of what to expect in their new town. Sophie's mother is particularly aghast at their decision to move to the Midwest; Sophie and James don't seem worried about their relocation. While James teaches and searches for a better professorship, Sophie writes at home, befriends a young neighbor named Mud, and gets a job in a coffee shop that sells "six different blends, all with names that were supposed to be political puns."

To say not much happens in the story might actually be an overstatement; while the characters go about their days, at potluck dinners, cooking at home, chatting with neighbors, there are no sudden events, no out-of-the-blue plot twists. There are echoes of the Kmart realism of Ann Beattie and Mary Robison in Fly-Over State, and it's refreshing to see a young writer embrace the less-is-more observational storytelling style that seems to have fallen out of favor in the past several years (though one that might be coming back, thanks to talented young writers like Straub, Tao Lin and Zachary German). Straub has the best of Beattie's humor; much of this book is laugh-out-loud funny -- there's hints of the borderline absurdist, but still dry wit of a J. F. Powers. While the story is, in parts, extremely funny, the ending isn't, and Straub doesn't pull any punches -- it's not scary, exactly, but the reader feels the awkward and all too real sensation of things ending up in an unexpected, uncomfortable place.

Straub's talent comes into even sharper relief with the heartbreaking "Hot Springs Eternal," the story of a thirtysomething New York couple taking a vacation to Colorado. Teddy is younger, less responsible, more flighty; Richard is serious, set, neurotic, a little humorless. The two end up deciding to check out a local hot springs; they argue, they panic a little bit. Again, there's no instant, dramatic event unfolding here, just a series of back-and-forths, fragments of conversations, and a palpable sense of fear -- the reader knows something's not entirely right; like the characters, though, she doesn't know quite what it is. There's a pointless argument between Teddy and Richard, and a perfect, sweet, and somewhat surprising resolution.

With a writer like Straub, it's tempting to talk about potential, to speculate about what she might do next. But this book proves she's already realized her potential; she's a fully realized author -- smart, compassionate, humane -- even after just these two stories. It's an amazing debut, and Straub does a phenomenal job of navigating the different geographies -- physical, emotional, temporal -- that make up our lives, and that most others may or may not ever fully get.

Fly-Over State by Emma Straub
ISBN: 0982034822
80 Pages