By Peter Anderson
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
It’s June 1993 and the unnamed narrator is perusing a used bookstore on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As he glances at the Sinclair Lewis selections, he is verbally accosted by a disheveled character holding a typewritten manuscript. He tells the narrator that Lewis was “Conventional, middlebrow, not much better than the bourgeoisie that he loved to satirize.” Then he hands him an extra copy of his manuscript, sporting a title and name as strange as the conversation. Longing Dissolute Midnight, Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard, April 1993. With that odd scene, the equally odd novel begins. Wheatyard, by Peter Anderson, tells the story of Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard and the narrator, an accounting major at the university. Like the narrator, Anderson has a background in accounting and the corporate life, utterly different than Wheatyard, the eccentric curmudgeon and aspiring author.
After the initial meeting, Wheatyard and the narrator engage in a peculiar kind of friendship. Not necessarily a bromance, not necessarily a master-protege situation either. The narrator is eking out a living while completing an internship with his professor of finance, seeing his checking account dwindle while unsure about his future. We later discover Wheatyard lives in a rundown home in Tillsburg, a town twenty miles out from Champaign. As their friendship develops, we learn the basics of fiction writing from the always opinionated Wheatyard, but not much about Wheatyard the man. The narrator tries to discover more about this elusive and prickly wannabe author. He asks the used bookstore owner and the local English professor.
Despite this rather bare-bones summary, Wheatyard is a wonderful little book. If one is inclined, one could read it in an afternoon. The novel also explores the challenges and ever-present despair involved with those aspiring to get into the writing business. Publishing has just as many dreamers and wannabes as Hollywood and major league sports. Even with the proliferation of ebooks, self-publishing, and the like, getting a book published is a big deal. (Getting signed with one of the Big 6 mainstream publishing conglomerates is even a slimmer chance, like transitioning from the Little League to being the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees.)
I enjoyed how Peterson fleshed out his characters. The narrator just trying to get a job so he can get money to eat and have a roof over his head. Wheatyard struggling with his bizarre brand of fiction and mountains of rejection letters. How bizarre is Wheatyard’s fiction? He populates his fiction with characters from pop culture, high culture, history, and myth. He has strange pairings. For an environmental magazine, he sent in a short story about an erotic pairing of John Muir and Smokey the Bear. In another story, he wrote about Walt Whitman and Betty Boop engaging in adult activities. Not your garden variety MFA thesis novel. Remember, this is set in 1993, prior to the Internet becoming an immediate outlet for information, disinformation, and memes. Before the ebook format wars, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc., and before the Internet phenomenon of fanfiction. (While fanfiction existed prior to the Internet, the Internet facilitated a wider dissemination.) While Wheatyard is a wonderful character study and a finely wrought coming-of-age novel, one can also see it as a piece of pop culture archeology.
Out of 10/9.3