Dec. 23 2009 12:00 AM

Local author’s debut fictionalizes campus life in 1960s

Author Larry Neitzert insists his first book, “Maggie’s Farm,” is not a memoir or even semi-autobiographical. After a recent conversation with him, I would contest that claim.

“Maggie’s Farm” is an insider’s look at Michigan State University during the 1960s, an intriguing and confusing time in America history. As a student at MSU in the mid-‘60s, Neitzert was a typical, small town boy making his way at the big university.

Like most who attended MSU in that era, he was from a working-class family with a homogeneous background. The university opened up the world for him, much like it does for his protagonist, Bob, in the book.

“I felt like hot shit coming up here,” Neitzert recalled. “I explored every opportunity. It was the first time I read Kerouac’s ‘On the Road.’ I wasn’t doing school work, and it was intoxicating.”

In the book’s opening scene, which, in fact, is somewhat autobiographical, Bob meets with a dean to make his case for readmission to school after a particularly bad term. Without readmission, he will likely be drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Everything in that opening scene rings true; those who attended MSU at that time will relate to situations like this and others Neitzert describes throughout the book.

The essence of “Maggie’s Farm’s” plot is change: boy meets girl, is confused by love and the meaning of the drastically changing world and is forced to confront his beliefs and those of others.

“Times were really unique,” Neitzert said. “Things were more basic. You were more impressionable and could get moved real quick.”

That’s exactly what happens in Neitzert’s book, as well as what happened in his own parallel life. “I pitched off my parent’s religion and my political beliefs went with it,” he said.

Neitzert was, as he calls it, “moved” very quickly from an ardent Barry Goldwater supporter to a draft and war resister. Bob undergoes the same transformation.

The author has done a yeoman’s job of capturing what it was like to be a young man growing up in a time when there were few boundaries and even fewer clear answers to issues like the war in Vietnam. Anyone who was even close to that era will recognize similarities in the book to their own classmates, friends and relatives.

Even though the book explores one student’s relationship with a war he doesn’t want to fight, Neitzert said he didn’t write the book with a message. “That’s what preachers and ministers do,” he said. “This is just a story.”

The book was nearly 40 years in the writing. As Neitzert neared retirement he found a couple of other stabs he had taken at writing it, including a single page he had written in 1969 and a chapter-long piece from 1970.

After 28 years as a teacher and varsity coach in Morrice and Webberville, Neitzert retired in 2006. Although he still teaches at Baker College, in Owosso, he said he knew he had to write. After retiring, he sat down and turned out “Maggie’s Farm” in 10 months and then spent another year editing.

He said he was most concerned about writing dialogue and the sex scenes. “I was more interested in establishing a sense of tenderness between Bob and his girlfriend, Jenny,” he said. “Overall, I wanted the reader to see how he [Bob] moves.”

Neitzert has done an admirable job with dialogue, especially for a first-time author.

Although some dialogue and interrelationships may sound somewhat tinny by today’s standards, the writing is nearly pitch perfect for the 1960s, with one exception — there are no f-bombs.

The author even confronts what is today called date rape, as one of the book’s major players recounts her experience and explains her reticence to get involved.

Neitzert’s experience in publishing echoes most firsttime novelists — rejection notices in stacks — but he decided to self publish his novel, and “get it out there.”

This process is becoming more the norm, as more writers churn out more manuscripts, and catching a publisher’s interest becomes increasingly difficult. What used to be called vanity press is now more likely to be called print-on-demand, and it keeps authors like Neitzert writing.

At a Dec. 17 event at Everybody Reads Books & Stuff, Neitzert’s friends wandered in to ask if they were in the book and to congratulate him.

He’s working on a series of what he calls “barn stories,” inspired by some feedback from readers. “Two friends of mine both pointed out that when Bob returns to the farm is where the writing is the strongest,” he said. “They said that’s where they got the most involved and wrapped up in the story.”

Barns act as the setting for a collection that spans eras from the Civil War to the Depression to more contemporary settings.

The author said he’s learned a lot from writing and publishing his first book. “It’s no miracle,” he said. “It’s work.”

Maggie’s Farm’

By Larry Neitzert Self published. 188 pages