Reviewer Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65) is an anthropologist, writer and former magazine editor. Besides numerous articles, he has published five books including two biographies, Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel-Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal (Orchid Press 2004), and Moran of Kathmandu: Priest, Educator and Ham Radio ‘Voice of the Himalayas’ (Orchid Press, 1997; rev. ed. in press, 2010). His next book, Discovering the Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas (in press, 2010), combines memoir and essay; and an anthology of his creative nonfiction is forthcoming. Don writes from his home near Portland, Oregon, when he’s not off leading treks in the Himalayas.
Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt (Nepal 1963-65)
If ever there was a culture within a culture, it’s on Michigan’s “U.P.”, the Upper Peninsula. The U.P. is cut off from the rest of Michigan by three Great Lakes and on a map it appears to hang down from the Canada border like a forgotten appendage. Aside from timber, some old mines, a little agriculture and a few goat farms and dog kennels, what else does it boast? A sizable and proud population of Finns for one, and Finlandia University where the author teaches English. It takes an insider to write well about the U.P. and the Finns. Lauri Anderson is an insider.
So far, Anderson has published eight books, three of them in his current series: Misery Bay, Back to Misery Bay, and now Mosquito Conversations: More Stories from the Upper Peninsula. Misery Bay is real, and so is the Mosquito Inn Bar where some of the conversations take place. His books are fiction, though some of his stories and vignettes sound autobiographical, and that’s what makes them so alluring. The author’s politics also bleed through in a conversational critique of the Bush era, aptly entitled ‘Contradictions’.
Not all of the stories take place in the U.P., however. Some are in Maine, and sometimes (secretly, the author tells me) he’s taken characters from Maine and placed them in Michigan, “including non-Finns that I transform a bit,” he says. One story called ‘Joe Heinonen’ even reflects Anderson’s world travels, including a scene flying into Kathmandu with an elderly American tourist couple, upset because mountainous Nepal is not flat enough for proper development!
“I like to think that my characters are universal and that anyone of any background can enjoy their lives in spite of their Finnishness,” Lauri wrote when I asked him about his writing. In all the books, he says, “I try to mix seamlessly real events in real lives with pure fiction (and) with journalism. I’m striving for a kind of super-realism.”
He lists Flannery O’Connor, Marguerite Duras, Clark Blaise, Juan Rulfo, Faulkner, Hemingway, Melville, and Malcolm Lowry as his literary influences.
Misery Conversations has 11 chapters with titles like ‘Patsy’, ‘Dirt’, ‘Trip’, ‘Dad’, ‘Veikko and Elvi’, and ‘Heikki’s Resume.’ The chapter with the longest title serves to explain most of the book-’From the Mosquito Inn Bar on a Saturday Night in 2009: Pieces of Conversation, Mini-scenes’. Some are pure country wit:
“He’d've made a good fence post in a back field of an abandoned farm at the end of a dead-end side road off a secondary road somewhere in Misery Bay. And that wife of his? She’d've made a good bird sitting on it.”
“‘Let’s have a drink together,’ I said but the old man was dead. It was the only time the old guy had ever turned down a drink.”
A short story called ‘Reino’ is the closest to autobiographical self-reflection. One day there came a phone call:
“‘Hey, professor. It’s Reino…’”
“Reino was a talker. I let him go on while I watched the Packers on TV. They were losing…
“Reino’s voice rambled on. ‘You should have consulted me, buddy, before you wrote your second book. That’s the real reason I called — to tell you that. The people over here don’t like that second Misery Bay book. They say they aren’t like that. They say you got it all wrong’…
“‘My book has virtually nothing to do with the real people who live in Misery Bay,’ I said. ‘I just like the name of the place, its extreme isolation, and its profound beauty. In the first Misery Bay book, I wanted to examine the effects of geographic isolation on character… In the second Misery Bay book, I wanted to see what happens when characters carry an isolated piece of geography inside them after they move to Los Angeles or Chicago or Tampa.’”
And in the third? Anderson doesn’t say; but given his insight into the American psyche I recommend Mosquito Conversations as a literary romp through a fascinating part (mostly) of the rural outback.