On Keith Lesmeister’s ‘We Could’ve Been Happy Here’
Lesmeister goes deep beneath the Midwestern stereotypes, proves characters don’t have to be likable, and creates balance in his debut stories.
Fiction | Short Stories
5'’ x 8'’
Also available in eBook formats
Review Format: Electronic ARC
ISBN # 978–1–944850–05–0
Des Plaines, IL
$15.00 print / $4.99 eBook
When people from other U.S. regions think of the Midwest, particularly Iowa, they think farms, cows, tractors, and wholesome, simple families with fat cheeks and thick, glossy hair. Traveling to different states, I’m often asked by residents where I’m from. They can tell that I’m out of place. When I answer, “Iowa,” they immediately quip, “Iowa! You guys have a lot of corn there.” And I always nod and fake-smile and tell them that, yes, we do have a lot of corn there, how very perceptive of you, good job.
In his debut short-story collection, We Could’ve Been Happy Here, Keith Lesmeister explores the less-than-picturesque narratives that simmer beneath the seemingly squeaky-clean veneer of Midwestern life: In three stories, Vincent, a recovering meth addict, tries to come to terms with losing custody of his two children. In “Blood Trail,” Eli goes deer hunting with his father, and the excursion becomes a competition of masculine control. In “Between the Fireflies,” Alice is tasked by her deployed father to protect the family garden by killing rabbits, a chore that becomes an obsessive emotional coping. Each and every story in this collection presents a Midwestern stereotype, expectation, or romanticized image and then interrogates it, shatters it, opens it up so that the reader has to look, really look, at what’s going on underneath the surface.
“Dusk in Iowa is a slow process, the sun growing distant and weak, casting long shadows over the open countryside, airborne bugs taking flight from their daytime nests — everything feels calm and steady when the day’s demands are tucked away for the evening.”
(“Between the Fireflies”)
As each piece explicitly takes place in Iowa (We know this through the mention of the landscape, landmarks, and specific Iowa cities.), I have to believe that the author is not just providing us with quaint images for the sake of lovely prose but is instead directly contrasting reader expectations with the core reality of his stories. In the opening story of the collection, “Nothing Prettier Than This,” Vincent, the aforementioned recovering meth addict, is tasked with farm-sitting for a friend despite being a city guy with absolutely no idea how to take care of a farm. Although the story involves quintessentially Iowan aspects such as its rural setting, a scene at a church, and two runaway dairy cows, Lesmeister infuses these genteel images with more sinister elements. The death of his mother, his loss of parental rights, his unconsummated attraction to his friend Katharine, and his meth addiction percolate beneath the surface, creating a tension that propels the reader forward. Although the number of meth labs and people addicted to the drug is decreasing in Iowa, it’s still a substantial problem. It is a problem that reoccurs over and over again within the collection, which illustrates Lesmeister’s deep understanding of the state. It is evident in the frank authenticity of the authorial voice that Lesmeister is an Iowan and is not a writer from elsewhere attempting to evoke the feeling of the Heartland. By acknowledging both the pleasant, gooey stereotypes alongside the lesser-known political, environmental, and cultural concerns, Lesmeister creates a dynamic, multi-faceted, and often surprising representation of an overlooked region.
Lesmeister does not construct stagnant images of the Iowa setting but instead uses landscape and location to further illustrate the themes contained within his stories. The natural world as depicted in “Nothing Prettier Than This” is different than the expected flat, golden fields and green pastures that grace each postcard in every Iowa gift shop; instead, the story takes place in northeast Iowa, a region that is characterized by rougher, more varied terrain. Through his depiction of place and setting, Lesmeister shows his reader that this is a different Iowa story, one that is uncertain and slightly frightening. It is a story that cannot be judged based on the surface but must be excavated and examined just like the untamed land beneath Vincent’s feet.
“This was the Driftless region of northeast Iowa. The land looks alarmingly different than the rest of the state, which isn’t possessed by dramatic hills and valleys. Millions of years ago the glacial drifts settled and leveled most of the Midwest flat as a concrete slab but spared this region and left it full of mysteries.”
(“Nothing Prettier Than This”)
It seems important to discuss the character of Vincent, who appears as narrator in three of the stories and is briefly mentioned in at least one more. (It’s possible he is mentioned in many more stories, but I simply missed the references.) However, I found the stories that featured Vincent as protagonist to be some of the least compelling in the collection. Vincent’s privileged status as the only recurring character combined with the first-person narration made the stories feel too close and a bit stifling. The stories read as if they were limited to solely what was going on in his head, his perception taking an unearned precedence over the external narrative. And despite this character having three stories to himself, there was never any progression; Vincent was never any closer to seeing his kids or gaining any sort of footing in his life, which is perhaps an accurate depiction of how addiction feels.
Instead of Vincent’s stories, I found myself drawn to two pieces that were written in third person and featured protagonists of demographics much different than the rest of the characters in the collection: “Lie Here Next to Me” about a queer female college student whose mother is dying, and “A Real Future” about an elderly black man who becomes a volunteer firefighter in hopes of finally feeling recognized in an otherwise all-white town. The technique of using third person to tell stories that deal directly with Otherness is intriguing, and I’d like to think that this was a conscious move on the author’s part and not just a case of the author inadvertently Othering his own characters. Regardless of intention, the distanced way these two stories are presented echoes the separation the respective protagonists feel between themselves and their communities; it is a technique that is employed subtly yet effectively.
“As he drove, there were recognizable faces everywhere — acquaintances and shop owners walking and driving through downtown — but no one seemed to pay any mind to his new plates. Or to Gerald for that matter, and maybe, he thought, this was because like most things that become part of your everyday, you don’t notice them.”
(“A Real Future”)
In these two stories, the balance between the inside and outside of the protagonist’s head is much more precise; the use of third person forces the story out of the interior and into the physical space of the story. Throughout the collection, Lesmeister leans more toward diegesis than mimesis; this is a valid choice, as his “telling” style works well with his naturally conversational voice. However, part of what made these two stories stand out as the gems of the collection is the sense of urgency and necessity of existence within a physical space outside of the psyche.
“Above us, a moonless sky. Stars so thick it looked like a smear of vanilla frosting. After we’d worn ourselves out, we sat down and watched as the fireflies continued their nightly conquests.”
(“Between the Fireflies”)
I cannot end this review without at least briefly mentioning the most ridiculous (and I use that word in a positive sense) piece in the collection, “East of Ely.” It is a story about a baby-boomer couple with a bizarre sense of entitlement who plan and execute the most outrageous gesture of a midlife crisis: they rob a bank. And what’s most interesting about this story, as well as in several others in the collection (“Today You’re Calling Me Lou,” “Company and Companionship”), is that the characters are wholly unlikable: the wife has been an unapologetic kleptomaniac her entire life and her husband, ineffective and enabling, agrees to help her in her quest to rob a bank located just outside of the teeny, tiny town of Ely. What makes the situation even more delightfully deplorable is that the couple bungles the whole deal, traumatizing the hostages, and the reader catches herself desperately wishing that the perpetrators get caught. Lesmeister proves the old adage true: characters don’t need to be likable to be interesting.
Readers who seek a collection with a strong connection to place and setting would do well to pick up We Could’ve Been Happy Here. Lesmeister’s stories are all about balance between character and situation, with the Heartland environment reflecting the themes of each narrative seamlessly. With its sense of balance paired with its conversational voice, We Could’ve Been Happy Here proves an even and accessible debut collection.