It’s a world tucked between the Mississippi and a wide, glassy lake, streets lined with little shotgun houses wedged together, until you climb past the bluff side or into the old neighborhoods lined with big Victorian houses, trimmed lawns spread around them. Herky Hawk is the school mascot, boathouses prove a teenage escape, an offbeat nun rifles through trash cans looking for treasures, and the local radio station makes it possible for folks to “listen” to the fireworks each year. Clearly, endearingly, Winona to the core.
Only this world is one fitted into 230-odd pages, and dubbed Minnisapa, set mainly in the 1970s to the tunes of Steely Dan and the backdrop of summers at the quarry on the edge of town. Kevin Fenton’s “Merit Badges,” takes the Winona he grew up in, and adds a dose of fiction, and with it, endless possibilities.
Fenton will make an appearance at The Bookshelf on Wednesday, February 23 at 7 p.m., when he will speak for awhile, and then a few old friends will help read some passages from the acclaimed new novel (including Darryl Lanz, Sue Meine and Bill Schuth). The event is open to the public, and a must for those who enjoy great fiction, and have a soft spot for Winona.
“Merit Badges” took first place in the 2009 Associated Writing Programs competition, a competitive annual award that awards winners with publication, among other accolades. And, 18 months after he won, Fenton had his first book of fiction published, with glowing reviews from critics to follow.
“I’ve actually been a writer of some sort my entire life,” said Fenton. “As a kid; I used to write my own summaries of the Vikings games. Ever since, I’ve been interested in writing about Winona, the town itself. I realized in high school that there was something special about it I wanted to convey.”
Fenton first began working on the novel years ago, and an earlier draft made it to the semi- final round in the Minnesota Voices, New Rivers Press contest. A judge gave him a call and said the book surpassed many of the entries, but he needed to work on narrowing the characters in a way that might make them easier to tell apart. Fenton then began working on his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota, and the book continued to evolve.
The final version brings us into the lives of Quint King, Slow, Smash Sarnia, Barb Carimona, Chimes, who grow from junior high into adulthood, who change, fall apart, and lift themselves back up again. The novel is packed with humor, even in the smallest of details, which Fenton admits that he didn’t always realize were funny until he’d see a reader fighting back tears. Take the weather, as an example, wittily personified throughout. Slow describes the way a person can’t really understand how beautiful a June night in Minnisapa is until you understand the pain of the winter months: “...when winter won’t get up and move on, when winter gets depressed and stops combing its hair and washing its face, when you no longer think about how cool the geometry of snowflakes is or how cool the physics of skating is, and the air is essentially a psychopath you should not be spending a lot of time with...”
Fenton said that while the characters are based on he and his friends, there aren’t many antics or people in the book completely based on real life in Winona, although there was, to his knowledge, really an intramural basketball team known as “Death Before Dishonor” when he was a kid. He said, when pressed, that he’s probably a mixture of the characters Quint and Slow, although his wife insists that he’s got a bit of each inside. Like Quint, Fenton’s father died when he was 13; Slow’s dad left his mom. “They actually sum up my response to a lack of a father in my teenaged years,” he admits.
All in all, each character is unique, each with their own poignant flaws and quirks and insight. But Fenton says that the most flattering comment on the novel he has gotten has come from folks who know Winona well, who have said that he got Winona right. Spinning off a Margaret Atwood quote, Fenton says that the reason you write a book about a particular place is simply because you love it. “It really is meant as an homage to Winona.”