“I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town” By: Robert McKean

Jan 25, 2021

 

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“I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town” (linked stories) 

Author: Robert McKean 

Publisher: Livingston Press 

Pages: 218 

Price: $25.95 (Hardcover) 

Prize-Winning Collection Tells Compelling Stories of Small-Town Life 

“Diary of a Town” is not a rewriting of Sherwood Anderson’s volume of connected stories, “Winesburg, Ohio,” but the similarities are a good place to begin. “Winesburg,” one of the first documents of modern literature in America, was comprised of 22 stories, with a recurring central character, George Willard. 

Even before “Mayberry,” before “Happy Days,” before Disney, the small town had been held in the American imagination as a kind of Eden, with no urban filth or crime; the houses have big porches, the happy freckled children play on rope swings. 

It was heaven. 

Anderson, in 1919, pulled back the curtain on this fraud. Life is claustrophobic, narrow, everyone knows your business and nonconformity is barely tolerated. Young people feel a powerful urge to get out, to live freer lives elsewhere. 

A small town proceeds peacefully enough in times of prosperity, allowing a certain live-and-let-live attitude. 

But in McKean’s 12 stories, set between 1971 and 2015, in Ganaego, Pennsylvania, the citizens’ lives become more and more stressful. The huge mill along the river, which had employed nearly everyone, either directly or indirectly, shrinks in size, falters, closes.  

In innumerable ways the town is becoming ugly. Marriages move from tense to violent. There is an increase in child abuse. Most of the stores are boarded up, but the taverns still do steady business. 

There is more crime, mostly desperate and petty. A home health care worker steals from her client, an old man. A grocery clerk steals steaks. 

But some few fight the good fight for art, for beauty. 

Julie Namar, who had attempted to escape Ganaego for a career as a dancer in New York, now runs a failing little dance studio. There is no extra money among the mill workers for a frill like their seven-year-old daughter’s ballet lessons.  

“She had worked with them as raw material to be shaped into creatures of grace.” It’s too late for her to attempt escape again, but she helps a tormented teenage girl to get out of town. 

 The town jeweler, Max Fischman, is holding on, but just barely. 

A thief commits a smash and grab at his store. The policeman is scornful. Even though Max knows he should put all valuables in the safe at night, he leaves valuable merchandise in his shop window. He thinks: “How to tell people, how to describe it, the joy of seeing a shop window at night, snow falling perhaps, a display ablaze with color and light, watches and rings and bracelets and brass clocks—these beautiful objects of civilization, things revered ever since humans beings became aware of adornment?” 

Tody Wolding is doing his best to keep theatre alive in Ganaego. He directs plays, stars in them, builds the sets. 

Effeminate, bisexual and a secret cross-dresser in a town in which there can be no secrets, he endures ridicule but has been heroic in his self-sacrifice, staying in Ganaego to raise Shelly, his little sister, after they were orphaned. 

When Tody dies from a fall, she has to go through his place and dispose of his wardrobe. Tody was a size seven.  

McKean’s readers will be reminded of a nonfiction study of this same American problem, “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance. As with Vance’s book, there is little joy or laughter to report in Ganaego, Pennsylvania, this rust belt Winesburg. 

But the stories have power. The characters are real and their struggles to retain some small amount of grace under enormous pressure stick with you. 

I’ll Be Here for You is the 2020 winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award from Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama. 

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.