Both the Ozarks and the Piney River are at once real and metaphorical places. Two real rivers, the Big Piney and the Little Piney, both flow northward (yes, northward) in a parallel fashion in the central Ozarks region, eventually emptying into the Gasconade River. At unexpected moments throughout the stories in John Mort’s prize-winning new book, the metaphorical Piney River glimmers from the pages, often in startling ways. In one story, the Piney flows into a “great inland sea.” That’s a stretcher, because neither Piney has been dammed. Although the book’s subtitle declares that these are “Ozarks Stories,” many of them are not actually set in the real Ozarks, for the most part. But most have ties to the metaphorical Ozarks, perhaps best perceived as a state of mind.
Mort’s new collection of thirteen short stories is published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Nine of the thirteen stories have appeared previously in literary journals and anthologies, and several of them, including “The Hog Whisper” (see below), which won a 2013 Spur Award, have been honored on their own. The book as a whole is winner of the 2018 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, which is sponsored by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at Notre Dame. If, like me, you are wondering who Richard Sullivan was, here’s the answer from the English Department’s website:
Richard T. Sullivan graduated from Notre Dame in 1930 and joined the University’s faculty as a writing instructor in 1936. In addition to writing numerous book reviews for the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, he published several short story collections and novels, including The World of Idella May, The Three Kings, Summer After Summer, The Dark Continent, and First Citizen. A popular undergraduate teacher, he is remembered for his description of writing as ‘hard work requiring patience and idiotic perseverance.’ He died in 1981.
What animates most of these stories are the characters looking for something from life that they cannot quite articulate and have not yet found or attained. Not money, mind you. Love would be a four-letter word describing what many of these characters seek. Strained and broken relationships abound. In advance praise for this collection, author Shann Ray describes Mort’s stories as “exquisite and lush in the desert of America’s failed attempts at intimacy.” Many of Mort’s characters long to escape and make fresh starts, which is a recurring theme in American literature, from Huckleberry Finn to the Little House books. For example, in “Mission to Mars,” the main character Brad shouts as he witnesses the launch of a Mars mission, “Oh lift me, lift me up….Take me up!”
Many of these stories are gritty, but this collection is not part of the “Ozarks noir” genre currently in vogue. Very little meth, moonshine, or monkeyshines occur in these stories. All of the characters, male and female, are interesting and engaging. In “The Hog Whisperer,” Carrie Kreider sympathizes with hogs, who are often understood as demonic pariahs. Carrie finds fulfillment of sorts in figuring out a method to make hog shit from CAFOs smell sweet.
The thirteenth story in this collection, “The Hidden Kingdom,” is my favorite. It is whimsical and fanciful, but it also resolves most of the disappointment, anguish, and parcels of vain strivings tied up in the previous dozen stories. Eddie is frustrated, bored, and hungover with a dead-end job (“Oh, the curse of a world in which everything is known! Where there’s only sex and bad food, jobs you sleep through, and people you wear out in four months. Surely, there’s more, but I can’t see it!”), but he achieves a hillbilly nirvana by using his lottery winnings, divided into small bundles secured with butcher paper, to escape from the south side of Valdosta, Georgia, and a string of four-months-max girlfriends, as well as a phantasmagoric string of neon retail hell, culminating with a night spent in a motel near Graceland in Memphis coupled with an early-morning Elvis sighting in a Piggly Wiggly, to the Ozarks. There Eddie finds peace, meaning, and fulfillment in his life, meets a schoolteacher, and their relationship continues strong well past the four-month mark.