Matthew Drummy, a Strafford resident and director of writing at Woodbury College, says, "I don't want there to be easy answers in my stories." There aren't. Brief and narrated in first person, the stories in Drummy's collection Northern Accents read like the inner monologues of ordinary people caught at crisis points. Their voices are so urgent that the first few sentences are often enough to hook a reader. "I should have been a virgin, should have been a nun," says the title character in "Peggy Thinking Back," a story that won the Boston Magazine Fiction Award in 1992. "But I got too normal, and [God] never came to me."
A sense of disappointment reigns in many of the stories, which are set in a variety of gritty northern locales, from Providence to Rutland to Munising, Michigan. Some of the narrators are people looking back on lives gone awry or nowhere, on upward mobility that petered out -- "I'm twenty-six and formerly bright, zigging pinballs up ramps and through tunnels," says the narrator of "Bay State Bombardier," a hometown basketball star who finds himself getting too old for the game. Others are idealists coming up against intransigent reality, such as the narrator of "Self-Righteous Pedant," a teacher of "wealthy yet troubled" kids who tells his charges, "Nihilism sucks," but struggles with his own despair.
The mood of Drummy's stories is as dark -- and often darkly funny -- as an Alexander Payne film, but some characters achieve unexpected moments of transcendence. In "Peace Garden," a glue-sniffing teenage vandal finds himself suddenly "split wide open to the night" as he listens to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." "Every once in a while something hits me that I can't make fun of, something reminds me that I don't really want to be what I am," he confesses.
Drummy, 37, who holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MFA from Syracuse, has received considerable recognition for his writing -- most of the stories in Northern Accents originally appeared in literary journals such as Calliope. Yet he chose to publish his stories with a "publish-on-demand outfit" called PageFree, which charges authors a fee. Why?
"It's very hard to get a collection of short stories published unless you have a novel published," says Drummy. He points out that most of the literary presses listed in Writer's Market describe themselves as publishing 95 percent novels, 5 percent short stories. "I think it's very important that there be a sort of winnowing process for most writing," he says. Still, in an increasingly corporatized literary world, the odds are against genres that aren't seen as marketable. Drummy says he realized, "It was a question of whether to wait and wait and wait and see if I could get through with one of the six or seven major contests out there, or to use this new raft of publishers to get my stuff out."
He decided to go with PageFree, which is somewhat selective in its choice of authors and offers a flexible menu of services. "They basically release the book, get it onto Amazon and all those online places, get it into Books in Print, and it's up to you to market it and make people aware of it," says Drummy. He chose a contract that gave him "enormous control" over the content and appearance of the book. While the busy cover design of Northern Accents isn't its strong suit, the image -- a bleak winterscape by Strafford photographer Sharon Denechaud -- gives it local appeal.
As for the marketing and distribution, which a traditional publisher would handle, Drummy is using grassroots tactics to get Northern Accents into people's hands. After two large readings at Woodbury, he put out press releases and started making the retailer rounds. By showing his credentials, he got the book placed "in 70 percent to 80 percent of bookstores" he approached, including Bear Pond Books and Yankee Paperback in Montpelier, Galaxy Book Shop in Hardwick and the Borders in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.
"If you're going to go this way, you have to realize that you'll have to do a lot of legwork," Drummy says. Once people decide they want Northern Accents, though, it's accessible. "One of the neat things about print-on-demand is that the books don't go out of print," he adds, noting that it took him less than a week to get a copy from Amazon.com.
Drummy grew up all over the Northeast; his collection's title is "a play on the Tom Petty album Southern Accents." He thinks that, though the indomitable spirit of the American South tends to get more attention, the Northeast has its own cohesiveness. "In the Northeast, and North Central area to a certain extent, there's a greater sense of political pluralism," he suggests. Politics are a big part of Drummy's life -- this election season, he's working as a Democratic campaign coordinator in Orange County.
In many writing programs, Drummy says, "It's unhip to be political in any way. People will jump on it and say, 'You're being pedantic, you're preaching.'" His literary influences include classic American realists -- Nathaniel West, Flannery O'Connor -- along with Beat authors such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who impressed him with their "playing around with language, their willingness to take risks." But he isn't happy with contemporary authors who value "technical precision" over content and commitment. One story, "Apprentice," satirizes a blowhard celebrity writing teacher who declaims "Metaphor... it's the blood of good writing" and criticizes the narrator for the "unearned emotion" in her stories, even as his unwelcome sexual advances push her to a breaking point.
Drummy's narrators are not just emotional people but people who care, often to an unfashionable extent, about suffering and petty evils they don't know how to cure. The narrator of "Bear in Christmas" feels "sick about" a bear who languishes "freezing and rotting" as part of a roadside attraction. In "Dairy Mart Kid," an Ivy Leaguer working at a convenience store is torn between his temptation to treat a sexually available customer like a whore and his desire to see her as a person -- her background is not unlike his own.
"There's a sense of ethics about my narrators. They often do what is wrong in their own eyes," says Drummy. "I've felt that in a lot of my friends I've known in the Northeast, especially those who came from working-class backgrounds like I did, and then were exposed to a wonderful education like Harvard. You're presented with these different systems of ethics and start struggling with them." In a season of soundbites and polarization, fiction like Northern Accents certainly offers no answers -- but it does ask the right questions.
On October 14, participants in UVM's 11th Annual Hispanic Forum gathered for a poetry reading at a camp on the quiet shores of Lake Eden, at the edge of the Northeast Kingdom. While the location might seem odd, a plaque on the red-and-white, two-story house explains all: For 10 days in 1929, the camp was the residence of Federico García Lorca. Before his death at the hands of right-wing Falangists in 1936, the Spanish poet produced a body of lyrics that's still widely read and translated. A meeting with the young American poet Philip Cummings brought Lorca as a visitor to Eden Mills, where he wrote the "Poema doble del Lago Eden."
In 1999, the camp hosted a 70-year Lorca celebration engineered by the Spanish department at Wellesley College. At last month's Hispanic Forum reading, organized by professor Juan Francisco Maura, Lorca's poetry mingled with current work by Tina Escaja and Gerardo Behori. Joseph Acquisto, a French professor who attended, says that the reading "permitted a much more direct contact with Lorca and his work than I could have gotten any other way."
Visitors to the area can see the landscape that occasioned Lorca's wrenching, heartfelt lines: "I want to cry because I have the longing,/ like the boys who sit on the last row,/ because I am neither a man, nor a poet, nor a leaf,/ but a wounded pulse that probes things from the other side."