Grind

Author: 
Karen Wikander

Mark Maynard signing books at Sundance Books and Music in Reno, Nevada. Photograph courtesy of Scott Goodin

“The elder statesmen Bill Harrah and Harvey Gross had been dead for many years. The Mapes had been demolished and paved over. The big players, card counters, cheats, crime bosses, and small-time operators had all left town. The once glowing hotel towers, glass-walled ramparts that stood guarding the casinos hidden in their bowels, had been converted into artist lofts and condominiums. Many of these now sat empty, awaiting the next come-out roll in the never-ending craps game that used Virginia Street as its green felt table.”

From the story “Sirens,” in the new collection of short stories Grind by Mark Maynard.

In the fall of 2012 I was wandering the hallways of Truckee Meadows Community College after teaching a class when I ran into Mark Maynard, who had also just finished lecturing. He handed me a proof-copy of his new book, Grind.

Now, Mark isn’t just a random colleague from TMCC – he was one of my closest friends growing up in our small, peculiar, gorgeous Lake Tahoe hometown of Incline Village. The emotions when he handed me his book were complicated. I was so proud of my friend for his accomplishment, but also felt that pressure of “oh hell, what if I don’t like it?” Granted, the Publishers Weekly blurb on the cover promised that “Maynard’s debut collection bursts with idiosyncratic characters” and “packs a strong emotional punch,” yet that, to me, was no guarantee. I teach literature. I idolize William Faulkner. I can be a bit. . .persnickety. . .about the narratives I read. Plus, if you’ve ever met me, you know I have no poker face. (Seriously. Play poker with me. You’ll win a lot of money.) A nightmare developed where I imagined running into Mark; he would ask me if I enjoyed his book and with a forced smile playing across my face, lips stretched tight over my teeth, I would eke out an “oh yes, it was quite interesting,” followed by some lame excuse that allowed me to walk away. Being critic to a friend’s textual child is fraught with peril.

Excited and apprehensive I sat down with the book.

Diving into the first story, “Jackpot,” I quickly left Mark behind. The voice, the characters, the setting – Grind is a book you lose yourself in and then suddenly realize you’ve finished the collection without moving – possibly without breathing. This book is a love song to the people who spend their life in Nevada, toiling to make an existence in a state where nothing comes easy and every day can feel like a struggle to survive. But not a Michael Bolton/Chicago/Richard Marx sappy, unrealistic, love song – more like an 80’s hair band power ballad that’s borderline too-sexy, while at the same time a bit sordid and subversive.

Each story walks a line between familiar and unorthodox, illuminating the lives of people whose stories aren’t normally told. There were moments that made me feel as if I was reading the northern Nevada version of Zola’s Paris – grimy, rough, populated with people who painfully crawl through the minutes of each day – or even Dickens’s London – the decaying, seedy underbelly exposed and autopsied in a way that highlights a reality we would like to ignore.

You might think this raw study of Nevada life sounds too dark, but the true gift of this collection is that each story makes you love the Truckee Meadows more than you thought possible. While the realistic nature of each narrative continues to haunt far past its conclusion, the character of the landscape, the city, and the architecture reminds you why this odd and nonconformist area draws people as if it’s a neon-lit and snow-capped mecca. Do you discover yourself in the scatologically-fixated homeless man who seeks transient solace in the routine of playing a one-armed bandit? Probably not. But what you find is the comfort and recognition of home. You find the song of the Truckee Meadows. And while that song might not always be beautiful, its eccentricity fills you with an odd sense of pride and protectiveness.

The potency of these stories hit me as I was making my way up McCarran in the early hours of the morning. I could hear the distant sound of a freight train making its way east, calling out its arrival with frequent whistle bursts. My heart was pierced with an unexpected sadness; I sighed and thought, “I wonder how Frances is doing?” (This will make sense to you when you’ve read “Around the Bend.”) It actually took me a long moment to realize that my concern was for the well-being of a fictional character. Yes, Mark’s narratives are that real.

This is a powerful book about people and place – a book for readers who call this state home and for those who want to encounter darkly beautiful insights about the Nevada experience. Regardless of the personal connection, I enthusiastically recommend this collection of stories to all readers – and because of the connection I take great pride in being able to say that I know the author. If this is just a sampling of Mark’s great skill, then we have much to look forward to from our hometown wordsmith.

Mark Maynard’s debut collection of short stories Grind is now available at your local independent bookstore, as well as at Amazon. More information on Mark Maynard can be found at his website: http://www.markmaynard.info/

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