DOWNSTATE STORY immediately intrigued me because it is a product of Peoria, Illinois. Ever since a recent trip through the Midwest—past a chain reaction of cornfields interrupted by pristine Dairy Queens—I've been somewhat curious about the inhabitants of this symmetrical and wholesome place. Does any chaos lurk beneath the surface? In addition, Peoria has become synonymous with the middle class — known for detergent testimonials.
In 61 pages, DOWNSTATE STORY, Vol. III, edited by Elaine Hopkins and Janeen (Burkholder) Crowley, provides insight into the middle class as well as middle America, mixing surreal with real elements, as you enter into the homegrown imaginations of its writers and artists.
Many stories in DOWNSTATE STORY explore extraordinary and weird events in mundane, recognizable middle class settings; the checkout lane, the Holiday Inn lobby, and the video store become sites of fresh and non-traditional plots. In this edition (Volume III) a customer who pockets a video is pursued by the nightmarish store manager in an electric wheelchair, a woman falls for her obscene phone caller, and a man attending his high school reunion is transported back to his teenage years via a special camera.
Frequently enough, this mixture of fantastic and prosaic details creates a humorous effect. In the "Electric Chair," for example, the video store has "ten television sets hung suspended from the ceiling like compound, electric fly eyes....Darlene started a new video—GROUNDHOG DAY. Ten Bill Murrays committed suicide in ten different ways—jumping off buildings, stepping in front of trucks, dropping toasters in tubs."
Although the content is avante-garde, stylistically, the stories are more in line with mainstream prescriptions, focusing on a pivotal narrative moment, adhering to a lean Carver-esque simplicity, using a linear or a flashback approach to time.
"Girl from Pandora, Iowa" by Don Axt uses flashback to deal with the issue of the interracial relationship and the prejudice surrounding it.
Larry DeWild (who is anything but wild) is an upwardly mobile executive whose love child from a college affair with a black woman shows up in the lobby of his sales office. This white man goes through a life review of the tryst as he descends by the stairway—the action underscoring his descent from his "on-top-of-it" position—to face his past and his racism. The story portrays, with honesty, a protaganist who cannot disrupt the status quo and who becomes oppressed himself by the rigid rules and expectations imposed by the college fraternity which is a mere precursor to his corporate life. DeWild is the quintessential salesman who must "spruce up a bit... buy a new necktie, a bright one with flower like those worn by the company management trainees and advertising salesmen." Paradoxically, the salesman is commodified—a product that must continually face society's inspection. The conclusion is a perfect statement about the clash of cultures, the high price of conformity, and selling out.
"Deus Ex Machina" by Burt Rabbe is another standout. This piece focuses on the exploitation of minority factory workers as the ghost of a man killed in an industrial accident comes back to see that his wife sues the plant owners.
This ghost story includes realistic appraisals of factory life juxtaposed with speculative assessments of the afterlife. About factory life, the narrator states, "Al turned and strode away. He was not an evil man. He and Pancho were really very much alike, cogs in a vast machine, whose lives were important depending on how good a cog they could be".
— CLF Newsletter, edited by Dan Pearlman, Department of English, University of Rhode Island; Kingston, Rhode Island
DOWNSTATE STORY provides readers with a ballot on which to vote for heir favorite story; I cast mine for "The Love Seat" by Steve Meiss. This absurd tale tells of Jim Botto's life when his mother-in-law comes to convalesce in his home after a hospital stay. The story captures the sense of disorientation experienced by many middle-class families trying to do everything and take care of everybody. At the Botto home, a clear sense of time and place does not exist. Jim returns home from his news job when his kids go off to school. The mother-in-law must sleep on an uncomfortable love seat in the living room while his colleagues visit. Jim is forever analyzing world news but cannot keep up with the news of his personal life. He barely knows what his wife looks like as she goes about in an unlaundered bathrobe and messy hair. The family lives in a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke, a fog, but in the end, his wife Patsy opens the window and lets the clean air in (although this may be because there's a corpse).
The details are familiar—from the brown plastic coffee cup to the kids lying down and eating in front of the television. The attitude is typically bourgeois in that Patsy is more concerned about the appearance of the love seat than its practicality. "Patsy said she was pleased with the love seat, which looked OK except for a spot in one corner."
This wacky story shows us how the real important issues may become subordinated in the hectic and unexamined lives of modern families.
All in all, DOWNSTATE STORY gave me a glimpse into the Midwest—the humor, creativity, and concerns—that I never saw on my road trip. This literary, eight-dollar trip was a smooth highway—no radar traps of ambiguous plots or construction sites of overly complicated sentences but some odd and satisfying scenery along the way.
— Kathy Moffitt
Perhaps everything old is new again. Having examined Volumes I and II of DOWNSTATE STORY, I am amazed at the refreshing (and sometimes jolting) mixture of fictional registers in this little-known little magazine.
From its inception, DOWNSTATE STORY has broken current taboos. Not only do is NEW YORKER or ESQUIRE style fiction mixed with literature of the fantastic, but the writers really seem to care about what used to be called story values. They focus on the tale, rather than on any particular ideology. Why, they seemingly ignore literary fashions altogether.
The stories in these two volumes range in style and theme from Carver country to the grotesque New American Gothic practiced by Flannery O'Connor. Don Axt's "Maxwell Forrest and the Wanna Bee" exemplifies the latter: the "Wanna Bee" lady of the title dreams of becoming an amputee, "to have a leg off." In Volume II are stories that could have been written in the late 1950s by Ray Bradbury or seen on the original Twilight Zone, mingling the cozily domestic with the strange and unexplained.
Don Axt's "One Quality Hour" is a ghost story with real pathos, while W.G. Bliss's "The Bad Antique Dealer" presents an interesting time travel paradox.
Professional work like Axt's and Steve Meiss's "Frog" (Vol. I), winner of the reader's award, co-exist (if a bit uneasily) with sentimental vignettes and some rather primitive artwork. Even so, if one story or illustration is not to your taste, move on to the next—it will be different!
With such a variety of styles and concerns, this may truly be the little magazine with something for EveryReader.
— Faye Ringel
DOWNSTATE STORY released its eleventh issue a few months ago, showing all the newcomers to the publishing field that to stick around, you just have to keep doing it.
The magazine is a small publication, with, I would guess, a small print run. It is staple-bound and in the size of a sheet of paper folded in half (which is no doubt, helpful to keep the production costs down). And there are not many authors or options of reading included in this issue (10).
But, the writing here is strong and the reason why the editor would include each piece is obvious and I like it. DOWNSTATE STORY might be a small publication, but I get the feeling that is how they like it. It is the little publication that can.
--KW. Midnight Mind Magazine No. 5, P.O. Box 146912, Chicago, IL 60614. (Brett Van Emst, editor.)
DOWNSTATE STORY, a local literary magazine, has been quietly cultivating a body of work and a group of writers with a distinctly Midwestern sensibility for a number of years now.
The Peoria-based magazine has been quietly churning out an issue a year containing 10 short stories from local and national writers since 1992.
While the magazine doesn't claim to produce literature for the ages, it has won a certain level of acclaim - a $1,000 grant from The Puffin Foundation of Teaneck, N. J., in 1993, and, more recently, $1,000 from the Illinois Arts Council for publishing a story titled "Fallout" by Deborah Correnti in 2002. (Correnti also received a $1,000 literary award.) In addition to short stories, the magazine also publishes original artwork.
Now a new edition has just been published - the 15th since 1992 - and is available for $8 a copy at area bookstores and gift shops or through the not-for-profit Downstate Story Web site at www.wiu.edu/users/mfgeh/dss.
Peoria-area writers included in this issue are Pepper Bauer and Gordon Petry. Other writers are Jim Courter of Macomb, Joyce Frohn of Oshkosh,Wis., and Ruth Cox Anderson of Port Charlotte, Fla. Writers typically find Downstate Story online or in listings in Writers Digest.
"Several of these stories reveal profound pessimism, as they focus on revenge, guilt, unhappiness," writes publisher Elaine Hopkins, who also is a longtime reporter at the Journal Star. "A few present bizarre symbolism, or the protagonist as fool. Have these writers absorbed the zeitgeist, the ambience, the uneasiness of a nation at war against 'terror,' which as many commentators have pointed out is a tactic and not a proper foe? In this unsettled era, writers and artists likely reveal the clearest vision of national, or regional mood."
Whether the stories reflect the zeitgeist or not, there is a lot of variety. One story, "The Assignation," by Pepper Bauer, explores theconventional themes of love, betrayal and longing - but with a twist in the last paragraph that will make you go back and re-read the whole story with a completely different impression of what's actually transpiring.
In another tale, "Buddy's Magic," Gordon Petry offers a first-person account of an incompetent magician named Buddy, and the unexpected marvels this seemingly ordinary person can really work.
Meanwhile, a Colt revolver hidden in an SUV waits to go off in Jim Courter's "Two Falls."
Bauer says Downstate Story - which has published her work before - has both given her confidence and opened doors for her, including a writing gig at the Limestone Independent News. Courter says Downstate Story offers a needed outlet for writers.
"I think the title, in a way, says it all," Courter said. "I just find it's a good place for writers to find a voice. As much as anything, it gets the word out that there is a literary life south of Chicago."
-- Gary A. Panetta, fine arts columnist and a critic for the (Peoria) Journal Star, Dec. 24, 2006.
Original site by Eldon Brown
1998 Update by Ted Eselgroth, [email protected]
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