A clutch of personal essays about Midwestern life that captures the region’s humor, seriousness, and occasional strangeness.
This collection by poet and essayist Reese (English/Mount Marty Coll.; Really Happy!, 2014, etc.) contains a handful of interludes cataloging bumper stickers he’s seen in his travels through the Midwest and Great Plains: “Nuke the Whales”; “Don’t Mess with My Country”; “Against abortion? Don’t have one.” They underscore his point that it’s a region of the country that’s hard to pin down. From essay to essay, Reese bemusedly works to sort it out—blessedly, without a hint of Garrison Keillor’s labored folksiness. In one comic piece, Reese recalls his ill-fated stint as Willy the Wildcat, mascot of Detroit’s Wayne State University; alcohol, come-ons, and physical abuse all came with the job. Elsewhere, he chronicles his struggles to fit in with a hard-drinking friend in rural Nebraska and the years he spent trying to get closer to his close-lipped in-laws. “I question my own existence and purpose in life every time I leave this new home of mine,” he writes, but he approaches the region from a place of tenderness; the title essay is an admiring portrait of his father-in-law straining to keep hold of his farm. But the narrative’s true centerpiece is an essay reconciling his childhood fears growing up in Omaha with his hesitance to teach writing in prisons, something he’s done for a dozen years regardless. There, he masterfully weaves his personal history with observations of the prison system both intimately (in the prisoner’s writings, their tattoos, the strict regulations) and broadly (the troubled prison system, race and class divides). By comparison, some of the shorter pieces in the closing pages feel slight: riffs on watching TV at the gym, reading Harry Potter with his daughter, or visiting a memorial for a hanged circus elephant. But the variety is the appeal, and Reese is skilled in many registers.
An eclectic, appealingly no-nonsense set of appreciations of the heartland.