Score another Michigan literary honor for Ann Arbor dirty-book writer Steve Amick.
Two novels. Two appearances on the annual listing of Michigan Notable Books. And two small-town Michigan libraries that canceled an appearance by Amick when somebody had a chance to actually take a look at the book.
“Nothing But a Smile,” which came out in paperback (Anchor, $15) last month, was chosen by the Michigan Public Library of Michigan as a 2010 notable book. It’s a charming 1940s story about Sal, the owner of a struggling Detroit Chicago photography shop, who comes up with idea of staging – and posing for – girlie pictures to pay the bills until her husband comes home from the war. While it is, in a sense, about soft-core porn and its, ah, uses, “Nothing But a Smile” comes off “decent and true” – which is also how Amick’s hero, Wink, describes his war buddy’s wife.
“It’s an old-fashioned, sweet book,” says the author, “but … yeah, people have sex. That’s how we got here.”
“Smile” also features an Ann Arbor-related plot twist – one that turned out to have an ironic, real-life parallel.
The Michigan Notable Books program chose Waldron District Library for a reading by Amick, but he was uninvited after parts of the story were deemed a bit much for the tastes of some of the library’s patrons.
And that was déjà vu all over again for Amick and the books program.
Amick’s debut novel, “The Lake, the River & the Other Lake,” was named a 2006 Michigan Notable Book and got great reviews. But the sexual situations in that story, of the Michigan lake resort town of Weneshkeen and some of its more colorful characters, were too frank for the Jonesville District Library, which ultimately took a pass on Amick’s scheduled visit.
Amick was taken aback – but admits to a momentary thrill. “We thought possibly they’d pulled the book from their shelves,” he said. “My editor (at Pantheon) and I got very excited, because that would have been a windfall for me. I mean, to have a banned book? That could have translated into dollars!” Fortunately (or not – it depends on who’s getting paid), “Lake” stayed in circulation.
“People came to the first book thinking ‘Oh, this is about a small town, so it must be about very cute, innocent little people,’” Amick said. “I think that has to do with people’s need to categorize things: ‘Oh, he was trying to be Garrison Keillor – but Garrison Keillor wouldn’t write like that!’”
And you’d expect at least a little smut in his second book – it’s about a homegrown girlie pin-up business, after all. But the innocence of the sex in “Smile” is as convincing of the period as seamed stockings and live dance bands on late-night radio.
“I think I made the marketing department a little nuts,” Amick says.
Amick said he wishes there was “a way to shorten the gap” between the time the notable books are announced and the tour is scheduled.
“Percentage-wise, you’re lucky as a library, especially a small library with few resources, to get somebody to come and do this. It’s kind of a big gift – you’re picked,” Amick said. The libraries apply for consideration “and they don’t know who they’re going to get from the list, and by the time they’re told who you are they probably haven’t read your book. “
Amick says his “Smile” tour schedule includes Central Lake, Spring Lake and Allendale Morenci and Monroe to St. Joseph and Grand Rapids.
Making the 2010 list puts Amick in the company of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Brad Leithauser, Mitch Albom and other writers from Michigan and the across the country. Publishers range from Wayne State University to Norton and Knopf and the list includes a pair of titles from University of Michigan Press: “Isadore’s Secret: Sin, Murder, and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town,” by Mardi Link, and “Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing,” by Arnie Bernstein.
“I love the small towns and I love being part of the program,” Amick said. “I’m not setting out to write about Michigan, but it turns out that it’s becoming an important context for me.”
“This is a Michigan boy, born and bred.”
Amick spoke by phone on a Saturday afternoon – outside his Ann Arbor house, so as not to disturb his napping son. “When he’s up, he’s up,” dad said of 3-year-old Huck Lightning, “and I’m writing in the middle of the night.” (Okay. But if you name your kid after a dangerously insightful juvenile delinquent and a manifestation of atmospheric electricity, aren’t you begging for trouble?) He’s working on a novel that “has a lot to do with the culture of celebrity bios and that sort of thing.”
It is set in the 1930s, and Amick says the book will take readers from Escanaba and Traverse City to Hollywood and Belgium. A la E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” he says, “some very unexpected real-life celebrities have walked into the book.”
But next up for publication is a “novella-like short story” about Harry Bennett – Henry Ford’s enforcer – from Bennett’s “fairly troubling point of view,” Amick says. Should readers look forward to something even more lurid than the cracked skulls of striking autoworkers?
Says Amick: “I should never underestimate my ability to offend people.”
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and doesn’t mind reading a little smut now and then.