Eliot Treichel calls Eugene home but he misses Wisconsin, and his debut collection of short stories, Close Is Fine, is a tribute to his home state. “It’s where I grew up,” Treichel says. “I wanted to understand it. I guess I started to miss it once I left. I was working on all the stories together to be a book.” And nostalgia for home permeates Close Is Fine, focused mainly on rural areas of the state and the characters that inhabit them.
“Good Potato Soil” is the story of a couple of losers grappling with having a young child thrust into their lives. Elsewhere, social stigmas at a small-town high school are explored in “Papermaker Pride,” and an old-time forestry myth is created in “The Lumberjack’s Story.” These are all familiar to anyone who grew up in rural Oregon. “Oregon is the first place that felt like home in the same way Wisconsin did,” Treichel explains. “There are similarities. Looking at a map, Wisconsin and Oregon are the same latitude. I don’t know if there’s something to that. Rural America is similar all across the states.”
Besides telling stories of Wisconsin, Close Is Fine is about men: working class, blue-collar men who volunteer to fight fires in “The Golden Torch,” build imitation Howitzers in “Close is Fine” and train bear cubs in “Stargazer.” “There’s a lot of me in these stories, but I can’t build shit,” he jokes, explaining that research and a collection of weird jobs in grad school helped him add so much authentic detail to the writing.
In addition to working with their hands, Treichel’s characters mess up; they mess up big and mess up in uniquely male ways. In “On By” a young art teacher, recently relocated to a small-town, is led astray from his pregnant wife by a local dog sledder named Rita. The narrator doesn’t seem to realize his own dissatisfaction and boredom with his marriage until he’s on the dog sled or in another woman’s bed. “On By” is particularly devastating, its dead-on male point of view provokes stinging memories of sadness and confusion in my own life. Treichel’s characters frequently don’t know their own feelings until the physical and emotional worlds link. Unfortunately, this leads to the women in their lives being hurt.
In an interview with Treichel tagged to the end of the collection, he mentions finding inspiration in the Wilco lyric “I am trying to break your heart.” He also references the Wilco song “Passenger Side” in the title of the book itself. Like Wilco, Treichel’s writing could be called alt-country. I enjoyed the melancholy, meticulous detail, rugged prose and “salt of the earth” characters, though perhaps they suffered a bit from being viewed through a romantic lens and a certain I-escaped-to-grad-school distance.
At the end of “On By” Rita drops five words on our main character that suddenly snap his priorities back in focus. While we don’t always see their redemption in the book, we’re certain Treichel and his characters, despite their faults, end up OK after all.
Close is Fine is available now from Ooligan Press.