By Mark Athitakis

I’m a Patrick Michael Finn fan. This, unfortunately, is a lonely thing to be. His output is modest: One novella, A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovitch (2008), and a story collection, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (2011), both from small presses. But the books are products of such a serious and sustained vision of his hometown of Joliet, Illinois, that his work evokes Edward P. Jones’ D.C., Raymond Chandler’s LA, and (to point to a central influence) Stuart Dybek’s Chicago. Suzy Kosasovitch takes place over the course of one night in a despairing old-man bar, as the 14-year-old title character craves to break free of her Catholic routines and grandmother’s supervision (“she had the terrifying urge to spit all over Jesus’ feet, just to make everyone hate her even more”). The night becomes a Hieronymus Bosch-like bacchanal of booze, sexual abuse, and bad news — crude and violent while never losing its empathy for its characters, particularly its central one.

Martyr cover sDarkness expands that imagery across eight stories that introduce a series of hard-luck types: strippers, bouncers, foster kids, factory workers. A number of the stories are told from the perspective of young boys who are recognizing their powers of observation (and control) for the first time: The title story is told from the perspective of a boy who finds a creepy way to convince his abusive parents that he’s not crying wolf when he says he’s spotted rats in the house. This bleakness is woven through with, if not optimism, a clear-eyed sense of place. In “Smokestack Polka,” he describes a wedding polka band that captures a whole region in a song: “No matter where the Jugoslavs played it, Kenosha, Oshkosh, Calumet City, Gary, or Hammond, it would always be about them, about us; our identical brick houses topped with green shingles; our uncles and fathers who worked in the yards, power plants, refineries, and who drank in the taverns; our grandparents who were buried in the Protection of Our Savior’s Five Wounds Cemetery; our mothers who made sure we got religion, even if they didn’t buy any of it themselves.”

The collection came out during a brief moment where two-fisted, hypermasculine fiction had some cachet: Donald Roy Pollock’s Knockemstiff, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, Alan Heathcock’s Volt. Finn’s book didn’t catch on in the same way, but he says he’s not resentful. “If it wasn’t for those books, you wouldn’t have heard about me at all,” he says. Finn now lives near Phoenix in Gilbert, Arizona, where he runs the creative writing program at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. His location has given him some perspective on thinking about the Midwest. It also means that we’re neighbors. When we met in late July, I was struck by his good humor in writing about a city in a dark place. He’s working on a novel about the desert Southwest, but as this excerpt from our chat shows, his hometown still shapes his fiction.

BELT: You grew up in Joliet. How long were you there?

Patrick Michael Finn: I lived there from when I was born in ’73 to 1989, when my family moved to Southern California. I was a newly minted 16-year-old when we left for Riverside County, California, which was a really strange and tough move.

BELT: What was your sense of what was happening to Joliet when you left?

Finn: The gambling hadn’t started there yet, so it was a pretty depressed place. It had been economically depressed since around 1982-’83 is when it really bottomed out. Unemployment was 25 percent. Joliet at that time was 78,000 people. So, 25 percent of 78,000 people. That’s a huge chunk of the city was completely unemployed. A lot of industry had left. The railroad had cut lots of jobs.

[blocktext align=”right”]I was not a reader at all during childhood. I was a TV baby through and through. I didn’t even like to read comic books, because I just hated reading. I equated it with school.[/blocktext]BELT: Were you a reader?

Finn: No. I was not a reader at all during childhood. I was a TV baby through and through. I didn’t even like to read comic books, because I just hated reading. I equated it with school.

BELT: An aunt handed you a Stuart Dybek book while you were living in Southern California. What was it in Dybek that triggered your interest in writing fiction?

Finn: It was that first story in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, “The Palatski Man.” It starts on Palm Sunday, and the kids are getting fresh palms from church and telling stories about how these are what they use to whip Jesus with. Which wasn’t true, but I was like, “Yeah, man. That’s exactly what we would talk about.” All the iconography of torture that surrounds everybody in Catholicism, and that becomes part of your play.

The religious sensibility that Dybek draws upon, there’s so much of his fiction where the church almost is like a character. The iconography is a character. The priests are a character, the nuns. Just so much of that tapestry. I didn’t know any of that was literary, but I was missing it at the same time. I was homesick for it. I just didn’t know that it was so lyrically beautiful until I read Dybek.

BELT: So how did you get from there to writing fiction?

Finn: I was working at a bowling alley. It was a really shitty job. A brand-new branch of Riverside Community College opened up in this little town where I was living, Norco. I didn’t want to work at a bowling alley forever. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I figured I should go to community college. I floundered around just taking classes. I transferred over to the University of California campus in Riverside, and I started taking creative writing courses. When I would mention Stuart Dybek and the teachers would all light up, and say, “Oh, you read Stuart Dybek. Wow. Who are you? Who else do you read?” I was like, “Well, that’s all.”

BELT: Really?

Finn: Yeah. In Riverside County, there weren’t many bookstores at all. Maybe there was a Crown Books at the Riverside Mall. I didn’t know where to go next. I didn’t know who to read next. I was still writing these little sketches that were Stuart Dybek rip-offs. Then my teachers would put me on reading lists and say, “Well if that’s all you read, that’s great, but you’ve got to read more than just Stuart Dybek. Go to the library and check these out.”

BELT: When did you get a sense that your writing was moving away from just parroting Dybek and becoming your own thing?

Finn: By the time I was in graduate school I think. I was starting to pick up so many different influences, that I understood that I was no longer just trying to write Stuart Dybek. I was also trying to write Denis Johnson, trying to write Barry Hannah.

BELT: What was the first mature story of yours?

Finn: “The Retard of Lard Hill.” It was the first story I wrote in graduate school and the first story I got published. It got slammed in workshops. It got the shit kicked out of it.

Finn c sBELT: Why?

Finn: It wasn’t very character-driven. It was more place-driven. It wasn’t until graduate school that I even understood the importance of character. I was more interested in writing about place, where I would write these gorgeous descriptions about place but absolutely nothing was happening in them. People were just standing around not doing anything.

BELT: There’s something almost fated about your Joliet. A lot of short stories, even by writers who I would compare you to, the arc is: things go down, but things go up a bit at the end. In a lot of your stories, and it feels like a constant downward slide.

Finn: They definitely have a side of Good Friday. I think at that time I was writing them, I just had such a young, angry doomsday view of the world. What I’m trying to write now, I certainly want a lot more Easter Sunday in it. I want to have more of the joy in it. No matter what, I love writing dark stories, and I like writing that doomsday landscape. But, if there’s one thing that I like about fiction now that I didn’t necessarily appreciate when I was younger, is the importance of hope. Making more of a component of that mosaic than just darkness.

This book I read last summer, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It’s such a bleak book. It’s about the femicide in Juarez during the ’90s. But there’s so much joy and light and hope in that book and humor, that it makes the heartbreak even more heartbreaking.

BELT: You like the perspective of the adolescent, or young man, coming of age. The plot is in some ways the disillusionment or the realization that these observers come to.

Finn: Certainly. That’s kind of an old American story. Being under Hemingway’s influence and in his shadow, especially as a Midwestern fiction writer. That was kind of the point of view that seemed a lot easier for me to write about when I was in my twenties. I think maybe now, that point of view isn’t as interesting to me as it was in my twenties. I’m in middle age now, so maybe the middle-aged character’s a lot more interesting just because that’s how old I am now.

BELT: Is Joliet still interesting?

Finn: Not as much as it was when I was in my twenties, to be honest with you. Now, what I’ve been writing over the last several years, is in the Southwest, just because I’ve lived here now for over 25 years. So it’s just as much of who I am as the Midwest is. I’m not saying one is more of me than the other.

BELT: What are the distinctions between writing about the Midwest and the Southwest?

Finn: It’s the interstate as opposed to only train track. Industry, in the sense of like chemical plants or coal mining, isn’t as big a part of the landscape as is just traffic. The nondescript, flat drifter who sort of matches the interstate itself, which is kind of nondescript. The chain link, the graffiti. I think cultural isolation. The cultural isolation my characters in the first two books experienced were a lot more being existentially alone. I think out here in the Southwest, people, loners are everywhere. Everybody usually comes from somewhere else, and it’s really easy to just unplug and drop out. That’s kind of why people come here in a lot of ways.

BELT: Do you feel divorced from the Midwest now?

Finn: No. I think I’ll go back to it someday. I think right now I’m just obsessed with the desert. Fictionally, as a writer, I’m just obsessed with Interstate 10 between El Paso and San Bernardino. I think there’s a lot of the Midwest I still want to write about. I started writing this story about an undocumented woman from Juarez making her trek to Chicago, and that combined both the desert and Joliet. She’s trying to get to Chicago, but she only gets as far as Joliet.

Darkness cover sBELT: Who are your students, and what do they want as creative writing students?

Finn: I may be mistaken, but this is the impression I get: When they see the words “creative writing,” I think they think it’s going to be just an easy A. In high school when you had a creative writing class, that was usually Friday afternoons when the English teacher didn’t want to do anything. I’m not really sure if they’re looking for an easy grade or an opportunity to express themselves in a classroom setting. Who they become if they stick with the class is a very curious reader of fiction, because a lot of them have very little experience with literature coming in. I give them some Denis Johnson or Barry Hannah or Stuart Dybek, and they light up immediately.

BELT: What are they attracted to in those writers?

Finn: They love the dark, violent, grotesque, drug-induced whatever. I think I have that kind of youthful attraction in my reading tastes as well. For example, when they read “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson … what more could you want if you’re 18? You’re out hitchhiking and you’re loaded and you get into a car that gets into an accident. It’s kind of like Snakes on a Plane: “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” That’s the whole story. I think they’re quite delighted by that and intrigued by that kind of hypnotic, drug-induced, lost-in-a-rainstorm/riding-with-strangers adventure of it all. They’ve all had experiences, maybe not that extreme, but where they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be and getting away with it and having some danger. They’ll write about their own dangerous experiences, like picking up somebody’s evil brother from a party or something. They try to have their own imaginative experiences.

I think they become very curious about being able to tell their own stories by seeing published examples and what they could actually be writing about, that they don’t necessarily have to be out on the road like Jack Kerouac to have an interesting story. I’ve got students who come from broken families, foster families. I’ve got students who, both their parents are in jail and they’ve grown up being raised by an aunt or a grandmother, visiting dad on the weekends and mom on another weekend in prison. They’re like, “Do I have anything to write about?” I’m like, “Are you kidding? That is prime real estate for awesome short fiction, and most of your contemporaries will have no experiences like that.” They’ll say, “Yeah, but does anybody want to read about them?” “Oh, definitely. Definitely.”

That empowers them, because they’re like, “It’s cool to be working class.” It may not have been really fun growing up this way, but it sure as hell is interesting.

Mark Athitakis has written on books for many publications. He lives in Phoenix but grew up in Chicago. His Reading the Midwest column appears monthly in Belt. 

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