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Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson

Field-Tested by Joe Meno

on an El train in Chicago, Illinois

By the time I read Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s modernist masterpiece concerning the beautiful and the grotesque in small-town America, I had decided that all contemporary fiction-writing was bullshit. What was with all these novels about overly-articulate, upper-class, 25-year-olds trying to find themselves in Manhattan? I had about all I could of stories set in the metropolis, any metropolis, New York especially.

Even though I was an art school student at the time, living in Edgewater, a burnt-out neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, and the sad, human detritus of the urban landscape surrounded me every day, writing about living in the city seemed so predictable, so obvious, so uninspired, as lame as the stories being published in the most esteemed fiction venue, the New Yorker, which all seemed to be narratives written by New Yorkers about New York. What about the rest of the country? Why weren’t there any stories about the Midwest? Where was the opus about Indiana? Or my home state of Illinois? Or Ohio for that matter?

And then a professor assigned a short story by Sherwood Anderson, “I Want to Know Why.” It was about horse racing. It was about a boy in love with the idea of horse racing, the quiet, tragic beauty of it, and the majesty, and loveliness of the horses themselves. After reading that one story, I bolted to the college library to find anything else I could by Sherwood Anderson, but all they had were three or four brutalized copies of Wineburg, Ohio.

Immediately, that book became my Bible, not just as a student trying to learn to write (my first two novels are direct rip-offs of Winesburg), but also as a young person living in a city, searching for something beautiful in a place that seemed sad, dismal, and decaying. It was one of those rare moments where a book intersects exactly with the reader’s life. Written with the simple language of a midwestern poet, the book is a kind of ballad, drawing on the dark narratives of old country songs, fairy tales, and the harrowing stories of the Old Testament. First published in 1919, Anderson brilliantly built an entire book out of the quietly desperate moments of rural life, moments of awkward loveliness — a man with overly expressive hands, a boy and girl walking together in the dark, afraid to speak — moments I had experienced riding the redline El train back and forth from school and to work every day.

The people on the Red Line could be pretty grotesque. Not ugly, not disgusting, but a little too real, a little too human. The old black man who ate cashews and spit the empty shells at his feet. The child with the white bandage over his right eye and a bruise on his cheek. The Latina woman, just about my mother’s age, who handed me a Kleenex because my nose was running.

Once the El train doors parted, once I found an empty seat, checked to be sure there was no feces, human or otherwise, beneath it, and opened the dog-eared copy I had not bothered to return yet to the library, the clatter and clangor of the train jostling beneath the metropolis, beneath the skyscrapers and busy multitudes above suddenly faded away. What remained was a way of looking, a way of moving about the world, a way of seeing people, as frightening, as unfamiliar as they might seem, as both odd, necessary, and lovely.

Joe Meno is the author of several books, including The Boy Detective Fails and Hairstyles of the Damned. His new collection of short stories, Demons in the Spring, will be released in August 2008.

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