Down, not out

By Bill Castanier

Authors explore Michigan underdogs with short stories

The titles of two new collections of short stories published by Wayne State University Press, “American Salvage” and the “Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit,” should give you some small hint about their contents. Authors Bonnie Jo Campbell (“Salvage”) and Michael Zadoorian (“Tiki Palaces”) both write about a Michigan where people barely survive the day-today existence of living.

Campbell, of Comstock, writes about a rural complexion of meth labs, trailer parks and credit card debt, about people “not making it in the 21st century.” During a recent interview, Campbell said she saw today’s economic crisis a long time coming. “I tell people we (Michiganders) were ahead of the curve,” she said. “We’ve been in a kind of recession for 10 years.”

In the story “Yard Man,” one of her characters describes the trailer park where he calls home like this: “Everybody’s garbage is all pressed up against you in that place and you’ve got to hear everybody else’s business.”

Detroit native Zadoorian, on the other hand, focuses his writing on the urban grittiness of a city long since sentenced to becoming an archeological trash heap. “I am fascinated with the way Detroit was a long time ago, places where my parents and grandparents went,” said the author during an interview. Those places have become focal points in his writing.

Zadoorian said his writing may be “twisted,” but the stories as a whole offer a “glimmer of hope.” There is a resilience to people from Detroit,” Zadoorian said. “They are taken to the edge, but find strength.”

Zadoorian’s own publishing career resembles that scenario. His first book, “Second Hand,” was widely acclaimed, but then he went through a nine-year dry spell. Now he has this new collection of stories, along with hit novel “The Leisure Seeker,” which tells the tale of an elderly couple on their last trip to Disney World. “I went nine years without a book, and in 24 hours both were accepted,” he said.

Whether it’s Campbell picking the scabs off floundering relationships, as she does in “The Solutions to Ben’s Problem,” or Zadoorian exploring the abandoned movie houses of Detroit in “Spelunkers,” these writers have a way of getting under your skin, so deep it hurts and, sometimes, even offending you. These are stories that grab you, shake you and slap you upside the head.

These authors are working toward perfection in short-story form. There are few unnecessary words or actions. Each can be funny, even in the darker tomes, but they are not laughing at their characters, they are one of them. In “Mystery Spot,” Zadoorian begins the funny tale of the vacation trip that became the basis for “The Leisure Seeker,” and in another story, he answers the question, “How could there be so many wig shops in one city?”

Campbell said for her, the short story is somewhere halfway between poetry and the novel. She experience with both; her novel “Q-Road” was published in 2000, and she will have a collection of poetry, “Love Letters From Sons of Bitches” published this fall.

Campell and Zadoorian each capture, with ease, the dialogue of their unusual characters, whether it’s the hardscrabble guy in Campbell’s “Yard Man,” or the homeless man in Zadoorian’s “The Lost Tiki Palace s of Detroit.”

Although Zadoorian is careful to point out that exploring abandoned buildings in Detroit is “against the law,” he knows of what he writes. These lost palaces to Polynesian culture that popped up in Detroit in the mid-1960s fascinate the author. He even has a collection of Tiki mugs from places like the Mauna Loa.

We may know people and places like the ones described in their books and not want to admit it, but these two authors have the audacity to write about them with hope and sadness in a way that makes them matter.

Made in Michigan

Author Series 7 p.m. Thursday, May 21 Schuler Books & Music, Eastwood Towne Center FREE (517) 316-7495

Leonard & son
Father and son mystery writers Elmore and Peter Leonard will make a rare joint appearance at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center at 7 p.m. June 4.

Elmore Leonard’s new book, “Road Dogs,” marks the return of three of the author’s unusual characters for the kind of literary mash-up he does best.

Peter Leonard’s second book finds him writing a little more like his father, with dastardly bad guys and women you love to hate. To catch his father he will need to write another 41 novels.

For this event, tickets are required and can be acquired for free at the Eastwood Schuler’s beginning today. Only the first 100 ticket holders will get a seat, but tickets are also required to secure a place in line for book signings. Elmore Leonard will only sign a limited number of books per guest.