Outside of a Donald Rumsfeld press conference, our government has little use for fiction writers. Sculptors and painters are employed to decorate parks and government buildings, musicians are hired for national symphonies, and actors work for PBS, but there seems no grand social calling for the tellers of tales. That’s probably for the best, because the government writing a novel would be a bit like Ford trying to build a Faberge egg—it would never make it through the assembly line.
If there were a government entity capable of fostering literature, though, it would of course be our library system. These people are book lovers. And they’re local. And they actually listen to their constituencies. (One notable exception being the refurbishing of the St. Paul Central Library. It was closed for, how long? TWO YEARS? I thought they were joking. I mean, would a Barnes and Noble close two years to put in some new book shelves? Sorry, just had to get that off my chest!) If you’re starting to wonder what all this has to do with Twelve Branches, stick with me, we’re almost there. See, the twelve branches in the title refer to the twelve branches of the St. Paul public library system. Each branch has a story, located in the surrounding neighborhood. Each story is authored by a writer who spent time at the library listening to anecdotes and ideas from library patrons, then picked and chose and synthesized them into a short work of fiction. And the whole thing was conceived and overseen by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. The idea was, as Stewart J. Wilson writes in the Afterword, "to promote use of the public library, to involve many community members in the process of writing, and to produce an outstanding, enjoyable book of fiction."
That’s a pretty tall order, considering that a library committee would somehow have to select writers with the talent and willingness required for such a project, and said writers would have the daunting task of taking anecdotes and various other scraps of different mettle and conjuring them into literary gold. So I was rather skeptical picking up this slim volume. But I’m pleased, not to mention civically proud, to report that the final product is a limber, readable, and sometimes touching collection of short stories set in our own town. The character of the neighborhoods do come through, though the main difference, flipping from story to story, is the writer. Nora Murphy was the most successful at incorporating the local setting; her stories, like plain dough, are mixed from ordinary events and people, but they never quite rise. Diego Vázquez Jr. seems to dwell on fringe characters and their difficult but intriguing lives, as in "My Friend Cíntia", where a cleaning woman strikes up an unlikely acquaintance with a stripper. Joanna Rawson gives the collection a "Pulp Fiction" twist, with words tumbling over words in an undisciplined, breathless riot that finds strangeness in every yard and backstreet. A snippet from "A Working History of the Alley", where the stationary, almost camera-like eye of the narrator has captured a boy on a bicycle:
We see by the triggered glare of a safety light that the pedaling boy is barefoot and dressed only in a pair of denim cut-offs too large to properly ride his hips. A smear of mud decorates his chest above one nipple, and the grass stain across his ribs looks like sheer green gauze stretched over a toy washboard. He has been playing, which on his body looks as much like violence as joy, and lost track of time. Here, I’ll let you in on a secret: The boy is flying home to meet his father. His father, the boy’s father, and the boy—they’ve never met.
By contrast, the quieter, more serious pieces by Julia Klatt Singer work because of the writer’s subtlety—she has an eye for just the right image, and the best turn of phrase. In "From One Window", where the narrator is moving her now-senile mother from her home on Summit Avenue, we have lines like:
She stood then, facing the window that overlooks Summit Avenue. All my life I remember her standing there just like that; gazing, waiting, lost in thought. Two women in their fifties, a little younger than me I suppose, walked by with such purpose, as if walking were the only important thing in their lives.
For St. Paul natives, this book will give a new appreciation for the diversity of neighbors and neighborhoods to be found here. For those not as familiar with the city, I still recommend the book as being, if nothing else, simply a collection of well-crafted stories in the Midwestern style. You can pick up a copy at your local book store or, better yet, your local library.
- Joel Van Valin