In this remarkable collection of stories, Heartland Calamitous, now available from Autumn House Press, Michael Credico paints for us the experience of what it means to occupy and navigate the Midwest. He describes, through almost lyric-like-not prose, both the feeling of living in the center of the world and yet, at the same time, existing, among slaughterhouses and fast food joints, in the margins.
Michael Credico’s short fiction has appeared widely in print and online, including Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, Columbia Journal, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hobart, New Ohio Review, NOÖ Journal, Puerto del Sol, Quarterly West, and others. He earned an MFA in Fiction from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program at Cleveland State University. Credico received an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, and lives and works at Cleveland, Ohio.
This book is a peek into the elements that chart and construct the Midwest, diving deep, with stunning imagery and boundless imagination, into what it means to survive in what is called the Heartland of the United States. Full of humor, grief, and even the weird and the ugly, these stories span and put together what one would call a dystopian novel. The not-very-long stories carefully explore, in perhaps an exaggerated and wacky fashion, the myths around what it means to be Midwestern. The intricate details force the reader head-on into the universe and witness parts of their lives. The slippery confusion and chaos, mythical creatures, zombies, comic violence, shapeshifters, and startling quantities of fish become symbols/motifs, more often than not, for the journey of the characters as they struggle to articulate their identities. The masterful articulation brings the reader close to the characters in the book (a little too close sometimes) and their desire to leave for someplace better as problems of climate change and degradation, growing old, depression and the sheer everyday-ness that goes beyond care, weigh heavy on them.
The simultaneous focus on the set-up of the space of the Midwest and the characters is a challenge to the reader, one that Credico makes extremely interesting. The motifs and symbols—of God, fish, cannibalism, grief, loss, and despair–also add an extra layer to the already complicated mesh of language and feelings. These layers question the politics of what it means to be Midwestern and the myths around what it means to survive with what it offers to those occupying it. However, to construct the characters as representatives of the space they occupy is to almost humanize the space itself—a political act, perhaps, that brings the reader closer to the space and empathize with it.
The space is both loud, speaking through the imagery, and silent, as it sits quietly in the background, accessible to those who are ready to unlearn what they know about it and start a new journey through this book. In that sense, the reader almost becomes a character in these stories, discovering, alongside these characters, some bits of themselves, and asking questions of what it means to exist as a social being, maintain relationships, and deal with both the joy and the pain that comes with them.
Accompanying these complexities is the stunning language that defines Credico’s prose. The sentences in the book strike a balance between those that are poetic and those that are sharp and a smack in the face with reality. They help the reader on the journey they will go on with the characters, but also kick them into reality before it gets too much. It serves as a reminder for the reader not to get too lost in the darkness but to also enjoy what’s being offered, creating, perhaps, a friendly distance between the book and the reader. That way, what Credico’s text perhaps offers is also a lesson in reading, by giving the reader the space, the choice and the accessibility to read as deep as they would like into the text, but also make sure they are returned to the reality of the spaces they occupy. The length of the stories also help with this. This constant back and forth is perhaps what being Midwestern means, and the language of the text successfully embodies that spirit.
Heartland Calamitous is, therefore, a must-read, especially for those who are looking for those willing to travel with its strange characters.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.