Two of Brad Barkley's most recent fiction works cover some familiar territory for residents of the tri-state area, both figuratively and literally.
The Frostburg State University English professor's latest novel, Alison's Automotive Repair Manual, is set in Wiley Ford, W.Va., although not a Wiley Ford that anyone who lives in the Mineral County town would recognize. And "The Way It's Lasted," Barkley's novella that is in the process of being published on USA Today's Web site, features a version of Noah's Ark under construction, like the God's Ark of Safety that can be seen along Interstate 68 outside of Frostburg.
Alison's Automotive Repair Manual, his second novel, is about a woman mourning her husband, killed two years before in an accident. She has been avoiding getting on with her life and chooses to restore a nearly terminal 1979 Corvette as a way of working through her grief.
Barkley's Wiley Ford contains many familiar location names - Cumberland, Sacred Heart Hospital, Discount Beverage Center, Midlothian Road - but they've been creatively relocated to fit the narrative needs of the book.
"I mostly like the name Wiley Ford. It sounded like a good name for a small town, which is what I wanted to write about," Barkley said. "A lot of books about small towns sentimentalize them," he said.
It's a topic he addresses in his new novel: "The worst thing about a small town was also the best thing: Everywhere you went, you saw the same people. Every church gathering or bar or ball game or parade, you would turn around and see the same ten people you'd just seen that morning, or yesterday ... It was comforting, this familiarity, and claustrophobic, all at once."
Barkley grew up in a larger city, Greensboro, N.C., but has lived in a number of small - and very small - towns. "I think I have a feel for the texture of living in a small town and living in big cities," he said.
The Wiley Ford of the novel "has a little bit of all the small towns I've lived in," said Barkley, a Frostburg resident. In the process of writing a novel, "it's easier to live in my mind in an imaginary small town than a real one," he said.
Alison's Automotive Repair Manual has met a positive response in its first couple of months out. Publisher's Weekly called the book "emotionally resonant"; Library Journal wrote "Barkley is back, and he has a winner…Barkley steers this one straight into our hearts"; BookSense 76, a list of recommendations by independent booksellers, made it a pick for March and April.
Alison's Automotive Repair Manual may also have a life beyond the page. It has been optioned for film by Fancy Wilder Productions, a new production company headed by three women, two of whom had worked at major Hollywood studios and one who is the daughter of the former president of the Nickelodeon cable television network and one of the founders of the Oxygen network with Oprah Winfrey.
Barkley's second novel has also just been produced as an audio book by Books on Tape, and the paperback version is due out sometime in 2004.
Acclaim for Barkley's fiction hasn't slowed since his first novel, Money, Love, was named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection in 2000.
USATODAY.com recently contacted Barkley to write for its Open Book series, which features original works of fiction that are published in weekly installments.
Barkley was prepared to write a new story to fit their parameters - segments of 1,000 to 1,500 words - but realized that a story he had already written would work well. "The Way It's Lasted," which will be in seven segments, is the 16th USATODAY.com Open Book.
"The Way It's Lasted" is about Billy Kesler, a depressed college professor struggling to overcome a recent separation, and Tommy Kesler, Billy's father who may or may not be dying of cancer. To read "The Way It's Lasted," log on to www.usatoday.com/life/books/openbooks.htm. "The Way It's Lasted" will eventually be included in Barkley's new collection of stories, The Properties of Stainless Steel, due out in early 2004.
Barkley says he's also in the early stages of a third novel, tentatively titled AmericaLand.