When Brett Biebel’s “Big Red Nation” came through our queue, one of our volunteer readers commented that she didn’t care at all about football but was still enthralled by the story. It’s a fine line that Biebel walks in so much of his debut collection, 48 Blitz, out next week from Split Lip Press. The 48 stories, almost all flash fiction, are set across the state of Nebraska and feature characters any Midwesterner would find familiar: the high school football heroes and the family farmers and the folks drinking Miller High Life on the football field in a late fall frost.
Football, often Husker football, is a core tenant of the Nebraskan philosophy. The days of the Big XII when Nebraska football dominated the NCAA may be just a memory (their last national championship was in 1999), but the characters that populate 48 Blitz are doing their part to keep it alive. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the line in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle as I was reading Biebel’s collection: “We Hoosiers got to stick together.” The characters in these stories have Midwestern pride: they’re proud of their state, of their football teams, even if perhaps a bit ashamed at their recent performance. Nowinski, the criminal put to death in the collection’s opening story (“Big Red Nation”), with his last words, says, “I love my Huskers, but they get their asses kicked tomorrow, no way I’ll be sorry I missed it.”
This is the kind of sardonic tone that flows through much of Biebel’s wonderful collection.
The book itself is divided into four quarters, each with twelve stories. The longest of which is its final, “Luisa,” a twelve-pager about a boy in love with his cousin which feels like a marathon (or overtime, perhaps) in comparison. Throughout the collection, you’ll run into characters again and again like you would your neighbors at the grocery store or the park down the road. A character whose cousin is killed in the Middle East later checks into rehab, where you learn her uncle was a character who appeared in an earlier story. Nowinski requests Mulberry’s for his last meal, a fast food chain that appears in these stories perhaps more often than the Huskers, known for its “Heart Attack Platter”. Later, it’s revealed that this was a result of a marketing effort by Mulberry’s. The doubling back textures the collection, adding a richness to the lives of the characters and their stories.
“The Patron of the Prairie” opens: “They tell the story different ways in different places… but the underlying structure is always the same,” and this universalizing note rings true for me through the whole collection. I grew up just outside of Milwaukee. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin. I lived for a few years in the Twin Cities. If you’ve spent any time, any real time, in the Midwest, this collection is a must read. And that’s not to say anyone would feel out of place or lost with these stories (except, perhaps, with the football references), but where someone might think a character is eccentric or their voice is quaint, a Midwesterner would feel right at home. Some of these stories could’ve been narrated to me by my grandfather from Sheboygan and it wouldn’t sound anything but natural.
At times experimental, Biebel’s prose is layered with parenthetical asides, nesting sometimes three deep. There are stories about rehab told through an insurance claim. Stories about divorce told through the apps on a woman’s phone. In the penultimate story, “Interloping,” in a fantastically meta move, Biebel stands in as the narrator and tells the story of this book: “A few years back, I published a collection of short fiction. It was called 48 Blitz, and most of the stories were about football.”
Earnest, moving, absurd, funny—48 Blitz covers them all in equal parts. This collection is a love letter to the people who often feel overlooked, to the flyover states, the places where everyone’s just passing through to get to somewhere else. “You know what they get in New York?” Ogallala Rolls asks the narrator in “The Fat Man”. “Everything we grow served up in nice, clean packages under bright lights and antiseptic smells. And here we are with the feedlots and slaughterhouses and goddamn instruments of death.” You don’t want to miss this.
Publisher: Split Lip Press
Publication Date: December 15, 2020
Reviewed by Cole Meyer