Field Notes for the Earthbound by John Mauk
Black Lawrence Press, 2014; 145 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
John Mauk's novel in stories, Field Notes for the Earthbound, is diner food, town squares, drive-in theaters, local businesses, cuffed blue jeans and white t-shirts, dirt roads, old trucks, eggs and bacon smells, corn-mazes, tree-houses, full moons. These interlocking stories are also substance abuse, pedophilia, manual labor, witchcraft, dirty fingernails, hairy moles, rock 'n roll, gun violence, blind faith, alienation, loneliness, confusion, longing for more. Beyond all that, as we move through each of the nine stories, there is something familiar and strange in the ways these characters cope and make sense of the rapid change happening around them in rural Ohio. We're witness to two boys investigating a girl who can fly, a young man who finds work as a furniture repossessor, the son of a witch, and the formation of a new rock band, The Amps.
Mauk's precise and fresh eye for building tension in scene through objects is paramount in these stories. For instance, in “The Repo Run” Warren, the protagonist and Grundon Furniture employee, runs into a man he'd repossessed a living room set from earlier on while he eats a cheese sandwich in a bar: “Warren looked down at his sandwich, all that cheese bloating out on the sides, and decided that he'd look vulnerable chewing and wiping his mouth. He let it alone and took a long drink. Cora came around and asked if his stomach was knotted. He said he was fine, just cooling off” (40). Or, in “The Electric Nowhere” The Amps play to a nearly empty bar that feels a little too big for their new band, and Jeremy, the lead singer, can't sing: “I couldn't bring myself to approach the mic, to throw another sound into the swirl. Instead, I kept my head down and my eyes on the fingerboard—convinced that I'd never mount a stage again. We gnashed our teeth, the Book of Revelations hard at work, and hammered through each song on the little list Billy had written” (84). Mauk's deft ability to find and show meaning through objects proves to be the lifeblood of these stories which, in turn, makes me care about these people as they face great odds and want something more.
Field Notes for the Earthbound is also a book filled with complex and fresh ideas regarding community, modernity, and identity. Mauk tangles with these notions without spectacle, but in everyday places, ordinary routines. In one such scene Mauk skillfully shows how quickly we can realize how out of step we are and how we might make sense of our identity:
In the dairy section, she stared at the milk—all different kinds, even jugs of chocolate mixed up and ready to drink. And there was a whole compartment of brick cheese—Swiss, cheddar, Colby, more choices than people needed. She looked down the aisle for a worker. There was no one in an apron, and the next three aisles were empty too. She left her cart and went to the checkout lanes where all four cashiers were punching in numbers. There was a boxed-in raised office by the entrance but she couldn't get to it without going through the lanes. She stood for a good minute until she realized how she looked—a confused old gal from Blakeslee out of tune with the bustling affairs of a big-town store. (121)
Mauk fully realizes how being trapped between the shopping area and the checkout lanes can act as a purgatory, a threshold, a space between spaces, where we're forced to be with ourselves. Mauk's characters are often stranded in ways where they must reflect and enact or accept change because they start to realize the world will keep turning without them. Simultaneously and constantly rising above and sinking below these characters is a brooding sense of the ways we construct and tear down the communities that we've chosen and the ones that have chosen us. In Field Notes for the Earthbound we will see ourselves in these people and in this place as well as ways we might participate in an ever-changing community that is difficult to foresee.