Writer John Mort of Springfield, Mo., has a special place in his heart for the Ozarks. In 1990, he gave readers a short story collection titled “The Walnut King,” with half the stories set in the Ozarks. In 2011, he produced a novel titled “Goat Boy of the Ozarks.”
And now, he has written another short-story collection, “Down Along the Piney,” which won the Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame. The title is a reference to the Big Piney River, which flows northward through south-central Missouri before it empties into the Gasconade. This time, the Ozarks account for eight of the stories — with Ozarkian values like sweaty persistence and weary resignation coursing through each.
Mort’s characters tend toward unhappiness. That tendency breathes sharp reality into Mort’s prose. Take a man named Abraham, resident of a worn-out Ozarks community:
“An outdoorsman, he spent many days away from Red Buck, camping along the Piney River, and in Idaho, he’d tried to find the same wilderness Lewis and Clark had. I think that many times his loneliness nearly drove him insane.
“He’d found no solace touring his origins in Iowa. The farmhouse where he grew up had been gutted and abandoned. He did not recognize the town where he had gone to school, and the school itself was gone. His relatives were dead except for cousins and their children, and they did not know his name. The beautiful girl he almost married before the war had made a bad marriage, divorced, and fled to California.”
Nor do Mort’s stories teem with quirky, O. Henry-style surprises. Much of his prose deals with the drudgery of everyday details, polished by Mort into interesting, sometimes fascinating reading. A sample, dealing with a short-order cook in Florida:
“Up at four and walk to the diner, turn on the lights and air conditioner, brew coffee, tune the radio to classical station from Gainesville, bring in the deliveries of bananas and orange juice and ground beef, stir some eggs for scrambling and omelettes, bring down the ancient waffle iron, turn on the grill. Fix himself bacon and eggs and grapefruit, sit with strong, sugared coffee, read the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald, carefully fold them and put them on the counter along with the Toronto Daily Mail and the New York Times. Plug in his laptop and send a message to his son: Doing fine, sending you some money for your grades. The air force put up a satellite yesterday, what a big firecracker! Say hello to your mother.
“Switch the radio to country and western from Orlando.
“Open the door.
“Ted the Bum came first, promptly at six, but then he’d been up all night and breakfast was his reward to himself. That he’d reached yet another sunrise was reason enough to celebrate, but he was sober in the mornings, clear-eyed for a few hours.”
Since the decline and fall of magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the audience for short stories seems to have dwindled to high school and college classrooms. The rest of us can pick up a copy of “Down Along the Piney” to realize what we’re missing.
Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.