Cold War Paranoia In Mayo’s Survival House

. December 19, 2018.

Wendell Mayo’s latest collection of short stories, Survival House (Stephen F. Austin University Press), is a lean, sharply focused collection of tales for these troubling times.

The stories, in some ways, represent a change of direction for Mayo, who recently retired from spending over two decades as a creative writing professor at Bowling Green State University. In the past, his work has often dipped into the surreal and the otherworldly, both at home (Centaur of the North, B. Horror and Other Stories) and abroad (In Lithuanian Wood, The Cucumber King of Kedainiai).

In Survival House, the absurd is almost everywhere, (in a town where they celebrate the existence of the human race by parading a pig down Main Street, then slaughtering it— in a bar that installs a miniature train to deliver food to customers, dubbed the Trans-Siberian Railroad) but Mayo’s stories in this collection are rooted more in realism as he writes about life in Northwest Ohio and being a child of the Cold War.

The timeline in Survival House toggles between 1960s peak-Cold War paranoia, and the present, where a new wave of political and cultural anxiety dominates our day-to-day consciousness.

Mayo’s characters are painfully ordinary, living in extraordinary times. Their stories reflect how deep the talons of ambient fear have dug into our country’s collective psyche. The collection draws parallels between timelines, not only an examination of our current time and climate but also of our country as a whole.

Before devoting himself to short fiction, Mayo worked as an environmental and energy engineer for several years. There are forces at work in this book that are far beyond my grasp—something about the science of how we are all connected, all on this continuum together. In Survival House, characters look through a telescope at the stars— there is a hope and a sense of belonging in this collection, despite the apocalyptic overtones.

Mayo talked with City Paper about Survival House:

The parallels between the Cold War/Russian paranoia and today’s cultural/Russian paranoia are present in Survival House. What compelled you to address this in your book?

Stories in my previous two books, In Lithuanian Wood and The Cucumber King of Kedainiai, are set in the former-Soviet Republic of Lithuania, a country and people I’ve come to know well since 1993, when I first went to teach there. Like so much of the world, Lithuanians celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union, but what lingers in the hearts and minds of people there is the feeling that Russia continues to be a serious threat to them. Look at the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. It’s this daily “mind of doom” felt by people in former-Soviet countries, and the resurgence of this mindset in the West, that set me to writing these stories.

Before you were a tenured professor at BGSU, you worked as an engineer. When and why did you decide to quit that line of work, and pursue writing and literature, full time?

I’ve written fiction since 1966 when I was in eighth grade. I never gave it up, even as I worked as a chemical engineer, something my physicist-father urged me to try. In fact, while working as an engineer, I took night classes in print journalism at the University of Toledo. I liked engineering but my heart was always in writing—in storytelling—and, as I came to know that more and more of my job in the late 1970s / early 1980s involved exorbitant corporate profits and damage to our environment, I quit. Dead quit. And finished my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

You have recently retired from teaching creative writing. What are you working on now?

I’m fortunate to have two more books of short stories under contract, one due out in 2019 and one in 2020. So I’m editing them. The first, Twice-Born World: Stories of Lithuania, is as much about baffled Americans encountering a rapidly changing people as the people themselves. For instance, one story, “Green Fire Ponds of Moletai,” has an eager, retired American agricultural engineer travel to Lithuania as a volunteer, only to find they have really no need— or desire— for him to help.

The second book started as a collection of stories about aging persons in our society, but evolved to include (again) stories about all sorts of folks who fall under the radar of official history. Like elephants who recognize their dead at the sides of roads, stories in What Is Said About Elephants pay homage to characters on the fringes who find themselves in critical moments, facing the high cost of education, joblessness, and more. 

My new writing project involves a boy in the mid-1960s who takes his television heroes seriously. They tend to shape his entire world. Maybe his story is the proto-story of how Internet culture has become so dominant these days? I don’t know, and I want to find out. So I’ll write about it.