Book of short stories first in 50 years for Blue Mounds writer

The devil and Dennis Chandler
dennis chandler and book cover
Dennis Chandler (left) took his time crafting and publishing the stories in his new collection. (Photo of author by David K. Wright)

It’s almost easier to believe Dennis Chandler made a deal with the devil than it is to believe what really happened.

In my experience, a young man does not enroll at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with hopes of becoming a writer, only to get sidetracked, live another unpublished life for 50 years, then reemerge as the author of a terrific new book.

Yet here is Chandler, at 71, living with his longtime partner Gayle Gold in a house he designed and built on 40 acres near Blue Mounds, offering up “The Devil Takes One and Other Stories,” a book of 15 short stories that are the work of a truly accomplished writer.

The tales are set in and around small Midwestern towns with men and women who left and came back or never left at all. Their horizons have narrowed but there might yet be — and several of Chandler’s stories hinge on this — one last chance for love, sobriety, peace, redemption.

The book’s first story, “Manifest Destiny,” about a jaded social worker who unexpectedly finds himself in need of assistance, begins with this: “It occurred to Henning that the dark and empty storefronts were like bad teeth that ruined First Street’s smile.”

“I go up to Lake Superior a lot,” Chandler says. “I take different routes. When you drive you really see what is happening in small town Wisconsin.”

Chandler calls himself “a service brat.” His dad was in the Navy. “We moved coast to coast,” Chandler says. He went to high school in Montello.

He came to UW–Madison in the late 1960s, the war protest years. Chandler was studying literature and creative writing but the turmoil on campus overshadowed it. He had professors who held classes at the 602 Club, a University Avenue dive bar. His dream of teaching, and writing, faded.

“I think a lot of people got bumped out of their orbit during that period,” Chandler says. “A lot of us kind of staggered away.”

Chandler landed in Big Sur, California, with friends who were working as carpenters.

“I became a freelance carpenter,” he says. “I kept thinking I’d go back and teach.”

That never happened. Chandler built ski chalets in Japan, houses in Montana, and helped open a restaurant in Mexico.

“But I always kept a foothold in Madison,” he says.

He bought the land near Blue Mounds in 1980 and built a small cabin on it. We crossed paths at the old Fess Hotel bar during its 1980s heyday, when our mutual friend Fred Milverstedt — former Cap Times sports columnist, cofounder of Isthmus — tended bar.

“Fred was the world’s worst bartender,” Chandler recalls. “If you ordered anything other than a beer or a shot, he’d scowl.”

One important thing needs to be mentioned. Throughout his itinerant life, Chandler never stopped writing. “I was always filling up notebooks,” he says. There was an unfinished novel and screenplay, half-written short stories, notes for others.

A decade ago, Chandler enlarged and modernized his home on the Blue Mounds property. And he began to work in earnest on the short stories that were in various stages of completion.

“If they seem well-crafted,” Chandler says, “it’s because they spent time in a drawer. I’d put one away, take it out and polish it. I had that luxury of time, to look at them again and rework them.”

His good friend Chris Berge, the Madison restaurateur, urged him to finish his stories and get them published. “He said, ‘If not now, when?’” Chandler recalls.

It’s one reason Chandler didn’t seek an agent or a commercial publisher but instead published himself. “Maybe that was a mistake,” he says. “But it was time to get them in print.”

The book is available at Arcadia Books in Spring Green, Mystery to Me on Monroe Street, Berge’s Weary Traveler Restaurant and through Chandler’s website, where you can also read one full story from the book.

The professional editor in Austin who worked on the manuscript urged Chandler to use a story called “The Devil Takes One” in the title. It’s my favorite. Much transpires in it, but readers are left to contemplate an anecdote shared by the story’s flawed patriarch: “It’s always been told in our family that there was a curse put on, or a price to be paid for some wrongdoing, that the devil would always take one, either father or son.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.