No one book is going to explain what happened in the Midwest to help turn the last presidential election to Donald Trump. No stack of books is going to do it, fiction or nonfiction. But with the election in the rear-view mirror, it’s clear that many of the issues that were debated (or at least meme’d) in 2016 about the declining Rust Belt have been dealt with in fiction since, well, since the Rust Belt began its decline in the 70s. Consider the books below a few of the warnings that novelists and short story writers have delivered in recent years.
Alaa Al Aswany, Chicago (2007) Aswany’s novel about a group of Egyptian graduate students at the University of Illinois-Chicago exposes internal divides within Middle Eastern society, a counterweight to the notion that all immigrants here are ideologically in lockstep, let alone plotting something. But it also lays that story in parallel to the Second City’s own racial divisions, which from Aswany’s perspective have been unresolved practically since Chicago’s founding.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (2008) Campbell’s bracing clutch of short stories explores the present-day impact of the long decline in Michigan’s economy away from Detroit. From cooking meth to collecting scrap, her characters are striving (but not always succeeding) at maintaining their dignity in the face of forces outside of their control.
Thomas M. Disch, On Wings of Song (1979) Disch’s 1979 science-fiction novel imagines a society where people are able to take flight by singing — and an Iowa where the practice is repressed by hard-core religious “undergoders.” Disch delivers plenty of brickbats at organized religion, but the Iowa native also understands the complex role religion plays in Iowa’s community and sense of self.
Patrick Michael Finn, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (2011) Finn’s cycle of stories set in post-industrial Joliet, Illinois, are relentlessly bleak, often written from the perspective of a young man witnessing, understanding and deploying violence for the first time. But Finn’s hard-luck stories also come with a bedrock understanding of the institutions — schools, churches, hanging-by-it-fingernails factories — that continue to define a place even as they crumble.
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (2015) Flournoy’s widescreen portrait of a Detroit family is a sophisticated study of how civic turmoil interweaves with personal crises. Her novel reveals how the city conceding ground to casinos has created a damaging sub-economy, explores the collapse of the housing market alongside its industrial base, and understands the ways that leadeship failures have an impact on communities large and small.
Joyce Carol Oates, them (1970) Written in the wake of the 1969 riots in Detroit, Oates hefty second novel is concerned with the fates of overlooked lower-middle class whites in the city — the “them” of the title who would later become the “they” the media identified as Midwest Trumpinistas. The tail end of the novel strays distressingly into reverse-racism territory, but Oates’ portrait of a brother and sister and their complex relationships to sex, work, and violence is piercing and memorable.
David Means, Hystopia (2016) Bad vibes, man: It’s 1970 in an alternative-reality Michigan where Vietnam has gone ugly, the state is overrun with PTSD-suffering vets, the drugs don’t work, an angry Stooges song always seems to be on in the background. No recent novel offers a stronger sense of the center not quite holding.
Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (2014) David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers receive plenty of acclaim as prophets of the Illinois prairie, but Mengestu, a Peoria native, has written two smart novels that take their cue from the way the region both creates and obscures racial identity. The leads in this novel, his third, are a black African refugee and white nonprofit worker striving to create a relationship in the face of casual heartland racism.
Philipp Meyer, American Rust (2009) Meyer’s debut novel earns its on-the-nose title, smart as it is about the decline of the manufacturing base in Pennsylvania steel country, and its impact on two high schoolers whose fates are shaped by a generation selling its past for scrap. It lectures a fair bit about how things used to be and what got lost in the process, but it’s a message that still needs to be heard.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck (2014), Early Warning (2015), and Golden Age (2015) Smiley’s Hundred Years Trilogy, which chronicles the fates of one Iowa family roughly from World War I to our rapid environmental and social decline in the wake of a GOP White House, is partly a counterweight to the notion of the state as a repository of nice, godly rubes — her characters are a mix of scholars and philanderers, farmers and failures. But it’s also a reminder about the role of the heartland in the very infrastructure of the country, and the sense that so much of what’s going on now is the end result of a long-running set of historical forces.
Rachel Louise Snyder, What We’ve Lost Is Nothing (2014) Snyder’s debut novel is inspired in part by her past work managing a program integrating apartments in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a deeply imperfect system — her novel describes suspicions on both sides of the racial divide, but especially among the white liberals who, for all their self-congratulation, still reflexively consider blacks an invasive species.
Mark Athitakis is the author of The New Midwest: A Guide To the Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and the Rust Belt, forthcoming in February 2017.
The Midwest is also full of nice people who accept and respect others