A story from a tear-gas-tinged era

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column. 

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MICROTONES by Chris Lay, associate publisher

While stumbling around looking for fiction set in Madison (Terry Pratchett? Huh!), I discovered the short story “Wooden Nickels,” which was published in The New Yorkeron May 8, 1978. Written by Jane Mankiewicz, the third in a family of writers (her grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz, won an Oscar as co-writer of Citizen Kane and her father, Don Mankiewicz, received an Oscar nomination for adapting the 1958 noir I Want To Live!), “Wooden Nickels” is the brief peek into the life of Anne, a UW-Madison freshman transplanted to the Midwest from the Big Apple in the late 1960s, who kicks off a whirlwind of low-stakes romance with an artsy layabout named Ben.

Obviously, a lot has been made lately about this particularly tumultuous tear-gas-tinged era in Madison’s past. Hell, there was a whole dang convention just last month honoring the heady memories of Madison baby boomers. The Dow protests in October of 1967, the firebombing of the College of Letters and Science in 1968, the first Mifflin Street Block Party in 1969, the Sterling Hall Bombing in 1970, and so many smaller moments along the way made this a wild time indeed to be living anywhere near our isthmus.

Rather than a story that merely happens to take place here, “Wooden Nickels” makes the most of era-specific details without falling into that cliche of “the city becoming a character.” Anne and Ben hook up for the first time in the UW Arboretum, for example, two weeks after meeting cute at a bluegrass show in the basement of a health-food store, the long-gone Good Karma Vegetarian Restaurant Cooperative.

Basically, “Wooden Nickels” fills in the more human side of those years, which people tend to remember solely in terms of protests and political discourse (“…protestors chanted ‘Oscar May-er / Air De-filer!’ as regularly, for a while, as they did ‘One, two, three, four / We don’t want no goddamn war!'” Mankiewicz casually mentions).

I expect that anyone who lived through those years of upheaval will find in this slim story to be a surprisingly sturdy throwback to the Madison they knew and loved. Anyone with an interest in a slightly different, softer look at those years will find something here too. It’s not the easiest thing to find online unless you’re a New Yorker subscriber, but a search for it in the digital collections of any public library or university library to which you have access should turn it up relatively easily.

“Wooden Nickels” was Mankiewicz’s third story to get published in The New Yorker, and her follow-up, “Small Strikes,” published on October 2, 1978, begins in Madison around the same time and features a similarly aged female protagonist, but spins off from there to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers picking grapes in California, itself another late-’60s flashpoint issue in the Midwest.



New this week:

Scott Gordon takes a brief look at Madison band Post Social’s new album, Major Congrats.

Adam Powell samples cocktails and scallops at Oliver’s Public House.

Standout Madison punk outfit No Hoax is no more.

Tone Madison podcast episodes begin coming out again on Thursday, so make sure to subscribe

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Points & Pints returns to the High Noon on August 20. ArtWorking, a nonprofit that supports artists with developmental disabilities, needs your help. Madison film programmer and critic James Kreul talks with the American Bandito podcast. The Wormfarm Institute’s Donna Neuwirth talks with Temporary Art Review about the evolving Farm/Art DTour. The Wisconsin State Journal checks in on the Winnebago Arts Café, a new venue in the works on the east side.

This week’s Madison calendar: Eric Andre brings his batshit antics to the Comedy Club on State. Cthonian Lich play their un-subtle doom at The Wisco. Tape manipulators Maths Balance Volumes head up an experimental show at Good Style Shop. La Ciénaga screens at UW CinemathequeAnd more.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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