William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County, Louise Erdrich created Argus, N.D., and, in "Possum Trot," a debut book of short stories, J. Harley McIlrath conjures an Iowa of the imagination.
With a name like J. Harley McIlrath, a literary career was perhaps inevitable. His stories honor the styles of midcentury masters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson.
Rife with rural dialect and local color, stoic fathers and intuitive sons, "Possum Trot" depicts a landscape so intertwined with residents' lives that the largest building around, the Iowa County Dance Palace, is painted on the inside with a mural that replicates the prairie outside.
The title story establishes that this is not a stereotypical book of quiet, rural reflections. Instead, reckless living catches up with musician Bob White, and realism dissolves into the fabulism familiar to readers of W.P. Kinsella. Bob joins Jay Fearing's One Man Wildcat Band in an improvised song that makes enthusiastic listeners stand up and clap "like it was the Rapture."
However, American Gothic characters, such as Ruby, are given their due. After accepting her would-be beau's invitation to see fireworks, she bolts from his car when he innocently runs out of gas. She returns to the Neverland of her front porch, as McIlrath sensitively captures the sense of eternity in Midwestern lives, where cultural misfits may survive in frozen anonymity if they so choose.
McIlrath's touch is light and deft, with few missteps. In a title evoking Hemingway, his short piece commemorating the experience of 9/11 on the prairie, "A Clear Blue Sky," provides an unnecessary punch line. But in general, he presents his characters in a clean, well-lighted place, without extraneous explanation. "Flies," his eerie story of rubberneckers, begins in medias res, while the autistic boy's journey in "Silo" ends with a cliffhanger.
This volume contains a surprising range of styles. "Memo From the Director of the Center for Prairie Studies" is a wildly comic monologue satirizing academia. "Mickey's Dad" is a restrained and thereby powerful account of a small town's tolerance of both abuse and retribution. McIlrath intersperses short, untitled tributes to his ancestors. The most moving piece, "Dead Man's Dive: A Lyric Essay," portrays the touching relationship of father and son before revealing that the son has muscular dystrophy.
Not surprisingly, this Midwestern author's life steeped in books has resulted in a debut richly and subtly informed by both tradition and landscape.
St. Paul poet James Cihlar is the author of "Undoing" and "Metaphysical Bailout."