Joe Meno uses music as inspiration for his new short-story collection
Brian, a chauffeur for Celebration Corporation, carts around a has-been, elderly Astronaut of the Year. The spaceman hurls insults, demands to be tucked into bed wearing a silver space suit and counts down until he begins sobbing at his woebegone glory. "Up there," he says, "it doesn't hurt so bad."
"Astronaut of the Year" is the quintessential story in Joe Meno's new collection, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir (TriQuarterly, $21.95). It's funny, filled with absurdities aimed at corporate culture, but it's also deeply rooted in basic human emotions such as loss, sorrow and regret.
Whether told through the eyes of a teenager struggling to raise his delinquent brother, or the friend of a man who floated away on a blustery day, Meno's verve bursts from every story like flowers blooming from a discarded Big Mac carton.
In "Our Neck of the Woods," Meno weaves his own life into a story set at a factory where plastic deer are manufactured. Bob, a middle-aged lifer on the line, meets young Elsa when she joins the Mold-o-Form team. All systems fail in Bob's heart when Elsa sings above the machinery din while droning through her workday: "I walk among the dead, the trees are filled with arms." To resurrect his raison detre, Bob steals union money and sets Elsa free from that hellhole.
"When I was 20, I worked in this plastics factory in Southern Illinois," says Meno, now a professor at Columbia College and a contributing editor to Punk Planet. "People stood in the same place for two hours, and then moved to the next point on the line. You thought that you were at the end of your existence as a human."
Because the South Side native uses his experience to inform even his most surreal work, the one constant is a soundtrack to each story. Meno played in "bad metal and punk bands" as a kid, and that aesthetic is still present in Bluebirds. Many of the stories are divided into numbered sections, as though they were verses in a song.
"I find myself responding to songs—how a song's set up, how songs are put together on a record, and what if I wrote a story that has that same structure?" he says. "With short stories, like this book, I think, Oh, I want to write a story that has the feeling of a Belle and Sebastian song or a Cole Porter song."
Meno captures the touching charm of two Chicago teens abandoned by their parents in "Midway," which won him the Nelson Algren Award in 2003. Eddie, 19, raises his younger brother, Junior, who lurks at Midway Airport, swiping suitcases to "steal" family moments from travelers. To further the heartbreak, Eddie is employed at the Solo Cup Factory to support his family during a time in his life when he should be drinking from Solo cups at keg parties. It's perhaps the most grounded story in the collection, digging into the grit of life while still maintaining a sense of humor.
"The writing that I really love is connected to everyday life," Meno says. "You get to this dangerous position as a writer where you see more successful writers... their stories seem to be about very bored writing teachers at these elite universities. They stop being about the people."
And while Meno's empathy for characters in fiction seems to be a defining characteristic in his own work, he cuts it short when it comes to the honchos of New York's larger publishers. Like the characters in his stories, Meno chafes under the watch of corporations. After some disagreement with Judith Regan at HarperCollins over his second novel, How the Hula Girl Sings, and difficulty finding a large house for his subsequent novel, he turned to Punk Planet Books, which launched its imprint with his Hairstyles of the Damned. It's since gone on to be a best-seller.
A launch party, complete with music and punch, will be held at Quimby's on Saturday 12.