At a recent reading at the College Inn Pub for A Jello Horse, someone in the audience asked local author Matthew Simmons how much of his novella is based on real experiences. It's a tough question for any author, and it was especially tough for Simmons: Horse is a road story about a young man taking a trip through Wisconsin and Kansas, with Seattle looming on the edges of the book. Simmons is a young author who lived near Madison and is at least fairly conversant in the roadside culture of Kansas. The answer took a little while to stumble out, and people in the audience fidgeted with their just-purchased copies of the book while they waited for the answer.
Horse should be read in one sitting. It's a tiny slip of a thing (only 67 pages, with generous margins) composed of a delicately constructed monologue; an interruption could well explode the story into senselessness, and you only get one shot to make the experience work. Told in the second person—Simmons, who has an MFA in creative writing, admitted during the Q&A that the book was an attempt to do everything that his teachers had told him not to do—Horse's painfully blunt internal monologue careens around the weird tourist attractions of middle America. The protagonist refuses to listen to a song that a former lover wrote about him: "You know that you deserve this song that says bad things about you, so you will avoid it to live with the possibility that it is a nice song. This is how you get by. It is not perfect, but often it works." Instead of confronting his issues, he diverts himself by contemplating jackalopes and pinball and wondering what he should do with his life.
But the people who attend readings want to know: How much of it is real? Simmons would only admit that the climactic House of 2,000 Phones that appears in Horse is based on a House of 1,000 Phones that used to exist in Kansas. "The rest of it is made up," he said. That's probably a lie, but it was a polite answer to an impolite question, and none of it mattered: The reading quickly turned into a drunken pinball competition, anyway.