Iowa has a ton of literary connections, from Iowa City’s Writers’ Workshop to Jane Smiley’s tenure at Iowa State, to the bridges of Madison County and beyond. Here are three that I happen to have in my collection (with more to come at some future point).
The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories by Debra Marquart (2001)
In my little world, this book is a certified Iowa classic. I first became aware of Deb Marquart when I first moved to Ames. Her band, The Bone People, would play at Dugan’s Deli. I’d meet up with friends and I hadn’t seen much in the way of live music yet — certainly nothing in a club. The Bone People packed the place. Everyone was getting down, dancing and writhing on the floor in their best 60s psychedelic clothing. I was pretty sold right away.
Later, I found out that Marquart teaches creative writing at Iowa State University. Later on still, I discovered some of her published work. I love her poetry, but The Hunger Bone is my favorite of her work. These are Marquart’s rock and roll memoirs, and they capture all the glory and dirt of being in a band, in bite-sized snippets of stories that are hilarious and sad, often all at once.
These stories capture the flavor of dealing with band personalities, and finding beauty in the smallest of things while feeling like everything around you is imploding, and the smells of traveling long distances with sweaty friends without ready access to showers.
These are the stories of an Iowa rock band doing their damnedest to bust out into the world, told in the voice of someone who’s been there and back.
Town Kid: Reflections of a Midwestern Boyhood by Gary Porter (2018)
I’m not sure I would have come across this one on my own. I was recently asked to read this book for KHOI Community Radio’s Community Book Shelf series, so that’s how it came to be in my hands.
Town Kid is a series of essays written by Gary Porter about growing up in Greenfield, Iowa, during the 1950s and 60s. At first, the experience of growing up in a small Iowa town was too similar to my own and I had a hard time finding the wonder in the memories. But Porter’s voice is strong enough, and patient enough, that I eventually found myself won over, and, just a little, finding the wonder in my own childhood in Iowa.
Porter is never a rebel, and loves his community and the people in it. He approaches each stage of his life growing up with charming Midwestern earnestness. Pool halls are the main dens of inequity here, and even they are treated with a level of laughing through one’s hand.
Through a series of sports adventures and a beloved horse, dog, and family, Porter tells his story of developing and being influenced by the Iowa around him, occasionally stopping to talk about how a Hollywood movie was filmed in his hometown, and how people felt when Elvis died.
By the end, Porter has moved away from Iowa, but you can tell that he’ll never truly leave it behind.
Images of America: The Floppy Show by Jeff Stein (2018)
I’ve found that you either get Floppy or you don’t. I grew up with him, so I get it. My wife makes fun of me when I describe it. She snorts and says, “Dr. Max is where it’s at.”
Floppy was a wooden dog puppet, operated and argued with by his owner, Duane Ellett. The Floppy Show had many incarnations, but in short, it was a kids’ show in central Iowa, where children would interact with Duane and Floppy (usually by telling jokes), and then cartoons would play (mostly Tom and Jerry, if I recall correctly).
Dr. Max was the eastern Iowa version of this, apparently, but you’ll have to go to another blog for THAT story.
I recall Floppy just always being there when I grew up. There was never a time without Floppy. I watched his show religiously, even when they’d show the same cartoons over and over again, and the kids would tell the same jokes over and over again, too.
I will never, ever forget what the biggest pencil in the world is, for sure.
Jeff Stein’s book about this iconic children’s show is short on text — it’s mostly a photography book. But it tells you what you need to know, mostly how Ellett went from being a law student to entering the world of broadcasting, and how wildly successful the show was, spinning off holiday specials and entire separate series, such as The Floppytown Gazette.
In middle school, I was in Cub Scouts, and Duane and Floppy came to our small town and hosted an event for all the scouts in town. I was floored. To my mind, these were genuine celebrities. Later on I would backtrack that a little, but Stein’s book has me turned around once again — it was apparently common for celebrities who were traveling through Des Moines to stop by and visit The Floppy Show. There are photos of the duo with Steve Allen, Arte Johnson, and Adam West (the book references an “adult” conversation that “Batman” had with Ellett live on air, and I’d love to see a video of that if it exists).
Ellett retired in 1987, the same year I graduated from high school. He passed away that summer while exercising, but his legacy has endured, and thousands still remember The Floppy Show.
For me, this book was like revisiting an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s also a pretty solid introduction to an institution that meant a lot to many growing up in Iowa.