To write books about Kansas as a Kansan, is, to some extent, to write without precedent. Evan S. Connell’s middle-class Kansas City drawing rooms and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s virgin prairie haven’t existed for a lifetime or two. More recent books have tended to turn Kansas into a metaphor for the country (Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?), dive deep into the minutia of local history (William Least Heat-Moon’s history of Chase County, PrairyErth), or take a form unlikely to reach readers without subscriptions to The New Yorker (Antonya Nelson’s short stories, sometimes set in and around Wichita).
In this vacuum, who was a budding young Kansas writer to look to for guidance and examples? For decades, the answer was no one. It was as if some Kansas Tinkerbell had ceased to inspire readers’ imaginations and up and died.
And yet somehow the state is experiencing a literary renaissance (read another account of the state’s possibilities for writers here at The Millions).
Five books of fiction and two memoirs set in Kansas have been published in the last few years or are forthcoming soon—by writers who were born or raised in Kansans. (My own Kansas story about love, meth, and anhydrous ammonia was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2016.) The characters in these books buck up against religion, politics, drugs, guns and wild hare ideas. If there is a running theme in these books, it’s that the characters are trying to figure out who they have become while no one is paying attention.
Here are the writers at the heart of the new Kansas literature.
Kansas has a long, complex history with race and religion. In the years before the Civil War, the preacher Henry Ward Beecher famously sent rifles to anti-slavery factions within the state in boxes marked Bibles. Yet today Secretary of State Kris Kobach has become the leading figure in a national movement to enact voter ID laws that target Democratic-leaning black and brown voters and laws designed to harass undocumented immigrants into “self-deporting.” Ahmed’s novel Kansastan, just announced as forthcoming in 2019, is set in the middle of this tension. It takes place in a new-future revival of the border war, with a young Muslim boy plotting to take over his mosque and lead his parishioners into battle against Missouri.
Technically, Barnett grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, but the fortunes of the two Kansas Cities have always been intertwined. In her novel Jam on the Vine, Barnett offers a riveting and eye-opening view of the city, as seen by Ivoe Williams, a journalist who moves to Kansas City from Texas to work at a newspaper modeled after Kansas City’s real-life black paper The Call. Ivoe reports on prison abuses and lynchings in a story that reveals how Kansas City’s problems with public schools, housing, and other civic institutions are the lingering symptoms of a persistent systemic racism.
As a 26-year-old public defender in Brooklyn, McDermott became convinced he was being secretly filmed for a TV show, a bipolar episode that would eventually lead to his hospitalization and return to Wichita to live with his mother. In his memoir The Gorilla and the Bird, he tells the story of his recovery and his family’s complex relationship with psychiatric illness and drug abuse. It’s a personal history that conflates with a larger one. For years, the state’s criminally-insane were locked up in the Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility while, at the same time, the Menninger Clinic and Sanitorium in Topeka was on the progressive edge of psychiatric treatment. For McDermott, it’s not an institution but his mother who nurses and drags him back to health.
Mandelbaum’s debut collection, Bad Kansas, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, an appropriate award since Mandelbaum shares with O’Connor a taste in characters whose outsized and idiosyncratic traits border on the grotesque. In her story “Bad Bear,” for example, a recent college graduate is escaping her flea-infested apartment by hanging out at Clinton Lake, where she meets a man on a real-life bear hunt. The story hinges on a small piece of dialogue that reflects a neat observation about rural Kansas. The man takes the woman home and says, “This here is some of the only wilderness left in Kansas.” She replies, “I didn’t know Kansas had any wilderness.”
Milward has written two story collections. His most recent, I Was a Revolutionary, tries to make sense of the messy history encapsulated by the John Stuart Curry mural of a Bible-and-rifle wielding John Brown that graces the capital building in Topeka. The stories feature the dreaded William Quantrill, along with the black exodusters who settled towns like Nicodemus and conmen like John R. Brinkley, who convinced men to travel to his “clinic” in Kansas so that he could implant them with goat testicles. All of these threads converge in the title story, about a University of Kansas professor whose past as a member of the Weather Underground gets discovered by his students and conservative media.
History also plays a role in Sarah Smarsh’s forthcoming memoir, originally titled In the Red but soon to be announced with a new title (see her Year in Reading here). The memoir tells the story of the circuitous path that Smarsh’s family took between small southern Kansas towns and Wichita, eastern Colorado, and Chicago. It’s a story of scarcity and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps only to have those straps yanked away. Smarsh has published essays about economics and class markers such as lack of dental care. That essay, “Poor Teeth,” was long-listed in The Best American Essays 2015.
The undertow of class lurks just beneath the surface in Cote Smith’s Hurt People. Set in Smith’s hometown of Leavenworth, the characters live in the shadows of four prisons, including the maximum-security penitentiary that has housed everyone from James Earl Ray to Michael Vick and was mentioned as a possible new home for the political prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. In the novel, there’s a prison break and also a magnetic stranger who promises two young friends an escape from their cash-strapped lives and uncertain futures. It’s a coming-of-age novel like so many others, except that its set in a place that has never before been the host of such a story.
In his 2004 bestseller What’s The Matter with Kansas?, liberal pundit Thomas Frank puzzled over the conundrum of Kansas politics in which social conservatives vote against their own economic interests by supporting Republicans who pursue a pro-business agenda while promising action that never seems to arrive on hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. For Frank, the success of the Republican’s bait-and-switch approach to the Kansas electorate was doubly perplexing because in the late-19th century Kansas was a hotbed of the Populist Movement, a left-wing coalition of farmers united against the northeastern business elite that controlled the banks and railroads.
Thomas Frank, meet Andrew Malan Milward, fellow Kansan and historical obsessive. Milward’s story collection I Was a Revolutionary bobs and weaves through Kansas history from the Civil War to the Age of Obama, mixing historical events with fictional characters in an effort to answer the question Frank posed in nonfiction form. The collection’s opening story, “The Burning of Lawrence,” tells the heart-pumping story of the 1863 raid on the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kan., by pro-Confederate guerrillas led by William Quantrill, which left at least 150 people dead. Other stories focus on the Populists that so beguiled Thomas Frank, while still others seek to resurrect more obscure figures of Kansas history, like John Romulus Brinkley, a.k.a. the Goat Gland Doctor, a quack physician who skillfully used early radio to nearly get himself elected governor in the 1930s.
Milward’s stories don’t always hit the mark. A couple of them, most notably “A Defense of History,” read like extended Wikipedia entries on the quirks of the state’s political history with a little human interest back story tossed in to keep the reader from bailing. Others, like the narratively inert “What Is To Be Done?,” seem to exist merely to allow Milward to offer up thumbnail sketches of long-forgotten Kansas eccentrics and political visionaries.
But in perhaps half of the collection’s eight stories, the wonkery gives way to riveting fiction in which Milward’s fascination with his home state’s history serves the plot and characters rather than the other way around. By far the best of these is “Good Men a Long Time Gone,” which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the story in the collection least focused on the politics and history of Kansas.
Set in a dive bar near a meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kan., “Good Men” unfolds over a single drunken night as a crew from the slaughterhouse parties away their monthly paycheck. Milward makes much of Dodge City’s fame as the home to Wild West lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp and the story’s central relationship between crew boss Ray and his protected underling Sal rests on their shared sense of persecution as native people — Ray as a Kiowa Native American from Kansas, Sal as a Pipil, an indigenous people from war-torn El Salvador. But as smart and interesting as this historical frosting is, what grabs the reader is Milward’s masterful rendering of the petty rivalries, crude humor, and largely unspoken affection of a crew of people thrown together by hard, dangerous work.
In one scene, Milward describes the apprehension Ray felt when he transferred Sal from an entry-level job shackling animals destined for slaughter to the higher-skilled but far more gruesome task of slitting the animal’s throats to drain them of blood. “Thinking Sal might hesitate, Ray watched [Sal] calmly take the knife from his hand and cleanly sever the throat of a cow shackled hindquarters up. He did it three more times in quick succession without pause. Exhilarated, proud even, Ray cried: ‘I knew it! You’re like one of those farts no one can hear but it kills the entire room.’”
In “Good Men,” unlike in some of Milward’s more doggedly scholarly stories, history is one of those silent deadly farts that fills the room with menace and bad air that seems to come from nowhere. All the members of the slaughterhouse crew, male and female, white man and Native American, are prisoners of history, stuck in jobs that are slowly crippling them, playing out prescripted roles that diminish them — but that’s not what they see and feel. Like all of us, they smell the fouled air and assume the shit pile they have landed on is merely ordinary life.
Milward works a similar magic in the title story, about an aging 1960s anti-war radical named Paul who has washed up as an untenured instructor at the University of Kansas teaching — what else? — Kansas history. With his marriage in ruins and his career threatened by a right-wing exposé on former radicals in American colleges, Paul struggles to understand how he turned from a would-be revolutionary to an academic milquetoast. “When we were young,” Paul explains, “we’d believed in Karl Marx and permanent revolution but in middle age had come to find our faith in Martha Stewart and the permanent renovation of our home.”
In story after story, Milward asks what drives those at the political extremes into conflict with the majority and what happens to those extremists once they’ve exhausted the violence of their political passions. If the individual stories too often misfire, Milward’s book as a whole can be more potent than the sum of its parts. It is fascinating to contemplate, for instance, that Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence, Kan., which was Ground Zero of Quantrill’s bloodthirsty 1863 raid, was a century later home to Afro House, where the Lawrence chapter of the Black Panthers stockpiled weapons for its effort to “Fight Pig Amerika.” Here, in the interstices of Milward’s historical investigations, the same revenge-fueled violence that plays out so suspensefully in the Dodge City bar of “Good Men a Long Time Gone” plays out, albeit in a subtler, more muted register, over the course of a century.
This is compelling stuff, and Milward is a daring writer, unafraid to cross not only lines of class and education, but also the potentially more treacherous lines of race and sexual orientation. Again, these border crossings are not always successful. A long story, “O Death,” largely told from the perspective of Southern former slaves migrating north to a promised African-American haven in Nicodemus, Kan., is a stilted, tin-eared slog. But it’s also a gutsy move, one few non-Southern white writers would attempt.
Milward is a native of Lawrence, Kan., where many of the stories in this, his second collection, take place, but unlike many young writers, his gaze isn’t directed at his own navel, but outward at the rough, strange history of the state that formed him. The man can write, too. One of these days, he will meld his historical compulsions with his gift for telling a taut, character-driven tale like “Good Men a Long Time Gone,” and the rest of us will be falling all over each other to say we read him when.