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Small stories of significance

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

Bill Hickey/ hickeyphotography.com

Matt Batt (whose last name, thank goodness, rhymes not with his first name but with “pot”) doesn’t put himself in the highest rank of writers. I’ve heard Batt refer to himself as “some schlub from the Midwest” and “a Milwaukee hayseed.” Batt mentions a friend of his who writes historically accurate novels that jump around in time and tell the story from multiple points of view.

“Boy, just the sheer artistic muscle that takes — wow,” the 40-year-old said one recent evening on a bench in an Aspen park. Batt, who lives and teaches in St. Paul, Minn., with his wife and 5-year-old son, has been in residence the past few weeks with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, working on his second book and first novel, and the time has been gloriously productive and free of distractions. Still, he can’t see trying to match his friend’s ambition.

“I’m giving myself permission to take the shortest course I can,” he said of the novel in progress.

Perhaps the most significant device that Batt is using to tighten the scope of the current manuscript is time. The novel, which has the working title “National Avenue,” takes place on a single day. Batt brings up a handful of masterworks that use the same temporal constraint: “Ulysses,” “Catcher in the Rye,” a Saul Bellow novel whose name escapes him.

But Batt is unaware that Aspen has a history with novels set in a 24-hour period that have gone on to great things. In 2009, Colum McCann introduced “Let the Great World Spin” to the world with an Aspen Writers’ Foundation event. The novel, set on Aug. 7, 1974 — the day Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan — went on to earn the National Book Award. It also proved, again, that a story set within one day could be complex and rich; “Let the Great World Spin,” stuffed full of main characters, touched on religion, crime and punishment, New York City and more.

It turns out that Batt, despite an innate Midwestern modesty, has plenty of ideas he’s attempting to cram into “National Avenue.” He calls the book “a kitchen sink of a novel, where I’m compressing as much as I can inside one day.” Set around the Milwaukee area of the mid-’80s, “National Avenue” addresses American suburbia, the angst of early teenhood, skateboarding and how people strive to make the best of rough circumstances. Batt also is determined to strike a balance between humor and darkness.

“Gravity and lightness, the comic and serious — too often, we’re forced to pretend we’re only experiencing one or the other,” he said. “But there’s the full spectrum of human emotions — the farting at the funeral. I don’t think acting like there’s only seriousness takes away the gravity. I think it adds to it. If you just have Herman Wouk’s ‘The Winds of War,’ and it’s just sorrow and tragedy, that’s a shame, to not let a little humor in, as well.”

As part of his residency, Batt will read today at the Woody Creek Community Center from his first book, “Sugarhouse.” (The Writers’ Foundation’s residency program continues with novelists Stephanie Kallos in August and Adam Haslett in September.) “Sugarhouse” shows Batt’s knack for finding the comedy in serious situations. The memoir, published last year (and edited by Adrienne Brodeur, now the creative director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation), tells of Batt and his wife, Janae, buying a fixer-upper house in Salt Lake City. The building turns out to be a former crack house, as they suspected, but also far more dilapidated than anticipated. Batt is not a contractor or even a handyman — he’s a writer with four degrees, including a doctorate, on his resume — and tearing out floors and dealing with Home Depot employees while also enduring non-home-improvement-related family strife challenges his marriage and his sense of himself. But Batt finds wry humor in his own failings and in the cast of Realtors, friends, scammers and Mormons that circle the project.

Batt sees “Sugarhouse” as part of a renaissance of literature that combines the dark and the light; he mentions Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and the essays of David Foster Wallace as notable examples. Batt also sees “Sugarhouse” as an example of writing that conveys ordinary experiences of ordinary people that, in its ordinariness, becomes an enriching read.

“You don’t have to be important with a capital ‘I’ to write a book worth reading,” he said. “You can be like me, some schlub from the Midwest with a lousy childhood but with thoughts relevant enough that they have time to unspool. It’s the renaissance of the common man. You don’t have to come from privilege or a special school to have a story to tell.”

“National Avenue” delves into the lousy-childhood idea, and Batt seems to be focusing on some big issues. Among the starting points was an incident from Batt’s own life that has remained vivid in his mind. He was skateboarding when he witnessed a fight; one kid smashed another with a skateboard.

“No question that kid could have been killed,” Batt said. “I didn’t know the kid who got hit or the kid who hit him. But it was this smooth rupture in what my childhood should have been. It was not a day like any other day.”

Among the things on Batt’s mind is suburbia; the title “National Avenue” comes from the main thoroughfare that connects Milwaukee’s downtown to the suburbs. His view is that the image of the serene suburban life was a facade that couldn’t quite hide cultures like the skate-punk scene he witnessed growing up.

“It was this vast wasteland where people parked their cars and slapped their lives together,” he said. “I’d be willing to bet the counterculture of the ’80s helped bring back vibrancy to downtowns. Downtowns made people be part of a community whether they wanted to or not.”

The novel also digs into the world of the 13-year-old, which Batt feels has been confined mostly to vampire books and the like.

“There’s something about that age — you’re so completely not an adult but also clearly failing to be a child. The mind and body of a 13-year-old is so full of turmoil and the strife of just trying to live,” he said.

Batt says “National Avenue” shares with “Sugarhouse” an interior questioning: “They’re both books about trying to figure out what went wrong and how we got to where we are.”

Despite wrestling with such issues, Batt sticks to the modesty line. He distances himself from John Updike and Norman Mailer, “who could set up a cast of characters, historical relevance, and then stand above it with poise and control,” he said. “I don’t have those chops. And I want to be a part of the mess, on the dance floor with all those characters.”

Batt returns to the subject of Wallace and one of his shorter stories, “Forever Overhead.” Like “National Avenue,” it concerns a 13-year-old boy. Batt, in his modest way, hopes that his novel will have some of the impact that Wallace’s story had on him.

“I’ll be lucky if I can do in a novel what he did in a five-page story,” Batt said. “Talk about compression. That story in real time covers 10 minutes. The whole narrative is this kid, having his birthday party at the public pool, getting up the courage to climb up the high dive and jump. And in that, the whole world exists.”


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