Mark Pleiss, “April Warnings”

Slice-of-life and slice-of-quirky, April Warnings is a novel in the form of interconnected stories set in fictional Baxter County, Nebraska—which may or may not be “a point on a grid that helps navigate travel through space.”

Baxter County has cops, ranchers, priests, politicians, professors, a reporter, and many others. Most have “strange ways of understanding the world,” as the reporter notes. And some of that “understanding” includes matter-of-fact accounts of alien encounters.

The stories all take place as a tornado is bearing down on Baxter County, a force of nature that prompts a largely weary sense of familiarity. The local citizenry might read the clouds to forecast what’s coming. They might read the animal behavior. But they have all been trained on what to do when the dark clouds form. In the opening story, “Snipe Hunting,” the rituals and routines are presented in sometimes humorous detail as a young boy follows instructions from Dad in order to minimize the wind’s chances of transforming ordinary objects into dangerous projectiles.

“”Inexpensive items assume unexpected identities during a tornado: putty
knives become throwing darts, ball bearings become birdshot, screwdrivers
become nails … Air compressors, power washers, and welding masks are placed in the truck, shut, and double-checked. I remember when a twister hit Sunnyside Trailer Park. It rained cats and dogs, barbecue grills, and oil filters. Our fields filled with sun lounges, bug tents, and used car batteries. The Gatsons lost their fat old tomcat, Biscuits, because they thought someone else had brought him in the house. A woman in Indie, a town several miles south of here, found him in a tree hissing at a spider.”

Mark Pleiss writes like a documentarian. The stories his characters tell each other—and themselves—are taken at face value. Stories wrap within stories. Characters and places pop up in one story and reappear later in another. Truck-driver turned police chief “Chief” plays the lead in three stories—“The Crime,” “The Cover-Up,” “The Showdown.”  There is an officer-involved shooting. There might be police corruption, or at least cops who prefer to keep the peace rather than stir up trouble. The mayor might enjoy a hit of coke. There is time travel, alien spaceships, and “Moon Cheese,” a reference to a rock that fell from the sky and might be a signal from “the other side.” There are many references to the rosary and more than a few mentions of space aliens and the curious formations outside of town, the ones with the perfect geometry and clean grid that just might be from outer space.

The story “Professor Williams” covers all the thematic bases. A tiresome and bureaucratic faculty meeting at the local college morphs into two professors in the tornado shelter and one tells the other about recent novels he’s read, including some with plots and themes that sound suspiciously like some “real-life” situations from the college itself. One of the novels being described is about a female professor who ends up at a bar and spots one of her students who is working on a formula that is “trying to describe the world, or at least the world outside our brains, but she tells him that it is impossible because he is using his brain to figure it out.” The professor’s fling with the student leads to her ouster from the school and she ends up writing novels, including a “heartbreaking story of a female professor who is unfairly accused of having a relationship with a student. And, of course, the character uses her frustration to begin a new career as a writer.”

Pleiss stirs all these themes and characters with affection. The pace is brisk and efficient—nine stories in 143 pages. The effect is an enchanting, three-dimensional portrait of a fascinating community. You get the feeling that re-readings would be richly rewarded.

Baxter County is both extremely insulated and open to every possibility under the sun. No matter what damage the tornado inflicts, the people of Baxter County will be there scratching their heads, musing about the unexplainable, and running to the shelters when their “special sensibility” tells them some things just can’t be understood. But is Baxter County all that unusual? Really? Don’t we all have—and need—strange ways of explaining the world?

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