I READ SUPER AMERICA in two sittings, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. This book is a great collection of ten short stories by Anne Panning, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. What I enjoy most about Panning’s writing is her variety of settings and situations and the way she depicts her characters.
If you like vicarious travel, Super America delivers. Settings of the stories include strawberry fields in upstate New York, a seventeenth-century monastery in Mexico, the coast of Waikiki, and a low-end laundromat on the Oregon coast. Panning has lived in and traveled to many places, including Hawaii, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Idaho, Ohio, New York, Mexico and Canada. Setting, she says, is her favorite aspect of any piece of writing. She tends to “start with setting and work things from there.”
Here are some titles from the collection:
“Hillbillies,” “All-U-Can-Eat,” “What Happened,” “Tidal Wave Wedding,” “Cravings,” “Five Reasons I Miss the Laundromat” and the title story, “Super America.”
The characters and situations in Super America are potentially depressing. Here’s a sample:
- A young woman hooked on a possessive, abusive boyfriend.
- A social climber whose dream house is literally falling apart.
- An older professional couple unable to conceive a baby.
- A threesome who gig frogs and cook up their legs for a living.
- A man who loses his legs in a bicycle accident.
Such set-ups could make a reader sad. These people have problems, and they don’t always deal well with them. They make bad choices; they value the wrong things; they are selfish. However, Panning puts them in the context of lives earnestly lived. Her characters do their best to make their lives jibe with their dreams. These folks don’t depress in the end because they are determined to make things work.
I asked Panning where she got the inspiration for these stories, and she replied that she has always been curious, sometimes asking too many questions or obsessing over something an accident she’s read about in the paper or a tragedy somewhere close by to the point where she cannot get it out of her mind. Though fiction, the stories hold together well. I read only a handful of superfluous lines.
Another aspect I should mention about the stories in Super America is their open-ended nature. Panning doesn’t tell us whether the beach in Waikiki is wiped out in the tsunami or whether the Butters lose their entire investment in the Cherokee Bluff subdivision. We cannot predict whether Ardeth will learn about Tim and her sister or whether Harry will be the more successful brother. In life we see “snapshots” every day whose development and end we cannot guess. The stories in Super America reflect real life in their lack of a final wrap-up.
I recommend that you take a look at Super America. Panning has not only given us entertaining stories, but constructed a collection that could be part of a time capsule. This book depicts American culture, warts and all, in the beginning of the 21st century.
Anne Panning is an English professor at the State University of New York-Brockport. She is the author of The Price of Eggs, and her work has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Black Warrior Review, and In Short.