By Mark Athitakis
This happened before the plants closed. Think of them, the masses of men, our fathers and brothers and sons, leaving every morning with their lunch pails in hand, driving off in their DeSotos and Buicks and Chryslers, off to jobs where they built and assembled. We made things, then. The smokestacks put us on the map and marked the time. On weekends we would gather in bars and backyards, tell crude jokes, talk about who was coming in to ruin the neighborhood. On holidays we attended school pageants or went on the interstate for family gatherings, traversing great asphalt carpets across landscapes otherwise owned by the tall corn and white clapboard churches. We were simple but, God, we were honest and true.
When you read novels through the filter of where they’re set, they tend to read like mash notes to a place. Leaving New York novels praise the city’s bustle and celebrate protagonists’ hard-won wisdom and romance. In Washington, D.C., where I used to live, the novels of George Pelecanos and the short stories of Edward P. Jones serve as commentaries on that city’s ongoing struggle to reconcile gentrification with race, a tension born out of an abiding love for the District. You can say much the same about London (Martin Amis, Zadie Smith), Los Angeles (Lydia Millet), and Florida (Carl Hiaasen, Russell Banks).
When it comes to the Midwest, though, the love letter tends to arrive as if on yellowed paper, with faded snapshots from the Fotomat tucked inside. The Midwestern novel today is a nostalgic thing, engineered to remember the heartland either as a place of comfort or a place too comfortable with its retrograde values. For the past year at least, Midwestern novels tend to be set at least two decades back; finding one set after the turn of this century has been surprisingly difficult. (Perhaps this is a function of which books cross my desk, but a lot of books do cross my desk.)
[blocktext align=”right”]When it comes to the Midwest, though, the love letter tends to arrive as if on yellowed paper, with faded snapshots from the Fotomat tucked inside.[/blocktext]It may be that the popular perception of the contemporary Midwest is that it’s not worth considering in itself—that the place is now a lot like the coasts, more culturally adept thanks to the internet, but still socially tetched in the head. Think of the Minnesotans that Jonathan Franzen introduces on the opening page of 2010’s Freedom: “the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill [who] were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.” When the hero of the novel, after more sophisticated travels in New York and Washington, D.C., returns home, he’s looked at with suspicion: “Walter wasn’t really even a neighbor, he didn’t belong to the homeowners association, and the fact that he drove a Japanese hybrid, to which he’d recently applied an OBAMA bumper sticker pointed … toward godlessness and a callousness regarding the plight of hardworking families … who were struggling to make ends meet and raise their children to be good, loving citizens in a dangerous world.”
But this typecasting of the Midwest isn’t exclusive to Franzen, much as the internet likes to fling so many literary problems at his feet. America’s most celebrated contemporary novelists of the Midwest tend to be nostalgia artists. Marilynne Robinson has set her last three novels—Gilead, Home, and the forthcoming Lila—in ‘40s and ‘50s Iowa. Jeffrey Eugenides set his first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, in ‘60s and ‘70s Detroit. Stuart Dybek’s stories are thick with remembrances of a mid-century Chicago that had a radically different ethnic and social grid from today’s version. Toni Morrison’s fiction, ever since her 1970 debut, The Bluest Eye, took the long view on racial violence in the Midwest, particularly her native Ohio.
This isn’t a value judgment about these authors, whom I admire; one of my favorite books of the past decade is Ward Just’s An Unfinished Season, a great Chicago novel that just happens to be set in the 50s. But those books all do something different than what the Midwestern novel used to do, which is bring some news from the territory. Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie reflects the Chicago of the late 1800s in which it was written. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! is set in Nebraska not long before the book’s 1913 publication date. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March climaxes after World War II and was published in 1953. Much the same can be said about the Midwestern works of Ernest Hemingway and Nelson Algren. Robert Coover’s 1966 debut, The Origin of the Brunists is set in a ‘50s Illinois coal town that suffers a mine explosion. But today Coover is a nostalgist just like the rest: That novel’s massive sequel, this year’s The Brunist Day of Wrath, took nearly 50 years to arrive, but its story is set only five years later.
There are fine writers who counter this thesis, of course: Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Ray Pollock, Stewart O’Nan. But I keep hoping for more books like Rachel Louise Snyder’s What We Lost Is Nothing, a 2014 novel set in contemporary Oak Park, Illinois, an inner-ring suburb conducting a long-running experiment in racial balance in housing that has reduced some tensions and created others. It’s not a great novel, but it’s one example of how the contemporary Midwest now can feed interesting, provocative fiction. In the meantime we have the novels here—representatives, of varying quality, of the New Nostalgic Midwest.
Novel: Amy Bloom, Lucky Us (Random House)
Set in: Central Ohio, 1939
Here’s Why We’re Going There: To remind ourselves that a conventional nuclear family is a futile ambition. Eva, the teenage narrator of Bloom’s third novel, opens the story by relating how her mother dropped her at the doorstep of her ne’er-do-well father and then disappeared. Eva is left to try to forge a relationship with her half-sister, Iris. They are the good girls of Windsor, Ohio, for a time—“the two of us did pretty well in the corn-shucking contests at the fairground.” But Iris is eager to make it as an actress, so the two head off to Hollywood, where a lesbian affair soon scotches Iris’ reputation. Eva eventually winds up in Brooklyn, reading tarot cards at a hair salon, punching well below her intellectual weight. Why can’t we go back to the Midwest, where things were simple?
In Lucky Us, Ohio is a kind of moral yardstick, an old-fashioned place against which Eva and Iris can measure the newness of their experiences in the wider world. The girl-girl flirtation in LA at first sends Iris reeling: “This was not the kind of party, like the ones in Dellie Bryson’s finished basement back home, where you could have a little fun and slap someone and go back to having fun, on your own terms,” she thinks. But if Ohio is the place that undergirds your personality, it’s also a place that one must abandon in order to achieve maturity. As the girls pass through the Midwest again on their way to New York, Eva thinks: “There was the comforting flatness, the pleasant brown haze, the solid houses that looked like solid people. I thought that we hadn’t left much behind.”
Setting the novel during World War II gives Bloom plenty of opportunities to show how readily families became unsettled and reshuffled, though Bloom can point a little too fervently at this; the book is thick with interminglings and ad hoc re-groupings. But wherever the book roams, Bloom never loses her urge to pit the coasts’ symbolic status as freedom to poke at aw-shucks backwardness back home. When Eva meets her mother years later, she finds her in Chicago as the “next Aimee Semple McPherson.”
Novel: Bridgett M. Davis, Into the Go-Slow (The Feminist Press)
Set in: Detroit, 1987
Here’s Why We’re Going There: To capture the city at its inflection point from industrial powerhouse to crumbling, crack-stricken metropolis. Angie, the heroine of Davis’ second novel, is investigating the vague circumstances of the death of her sister, Ella, in Lagos. Much of the plot of Into the Go-Slow (the plot refers to the city’s incessant traffic jams) takes place in Nigeria as Angie plays detective in a city that’s reached its own inflection point. (The climactic pages feature Fela Kuti baring his AIDS-induced lesions before the crowd at his club, the Shrine.) But the strong early chapters are thick with bitter reminiscences of Angie’s Detroit, from Ella’s failed effort to become a jockey under the tutelage of her father, one of the first black racehorse stable owners, to her growing fascination with the Black Power movement, and a heroin addiction that wrecked her before she got clean and left for Africa.
The novel’s galloping, and-then-this-happened rhythm lets the reader share in Angie’s sense of wide-eyed surprise as she shadows Ella’s own itinerary. Into the Go-Slow has a familiar coming-of-age arc, but Davis writes with admirable ferocity about the ways that place and identity intersect. Angie’s mother is infuriated at the city’s decline, blaming it for Ella’s own: “Lagos didn’t kill her. Detroit did,” she says. Angie is more sanguine: “Detroit had changed. The passionate radicals of the ‘seventies—themselves fueled by the city’s 1967 uprising—where were they? Gone. Or addicted to crack. And those who shot up were at risk of getting the new deadly disease, the one targeting gays and needle-using addicts…. But Detroit was home, where all the memories of her big sister were rooted.” Either way, the novel sensitively foreshadows a host of catastrophes to come.
Novel: Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (Knopf)
Set in: Central Illinois, 1970s
Here’s Why We’re Going There: To put the world’s more violent degradations into sharper relief. Mengestu’s excellent third novel alternates narrators between Isaac, a student in Uganda who gets caught up in violent political turmoil there, and Helen, a caseworker in an unidentified parcel of the Midwest who assists Isaac when he arrives and then falls for him. Helen is made of non-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth stuff, but her progressive values make her a poor fit for the conservative semi-rural community she lives in. One of the novel’s signature moments is the pairs’ subtle but pointed humiliation when they attempt to get lunch together at a restaurant.
Like Celeste Ng (see below), Mengestu suggests that these attitudes are part of the Midwestern soil. “We weren’t divided like the South and had nothing to do with any of the large cities in the North,” Helen thinks. “We were exactly what geography had made us: middle of the road, never bitterly segregated, but with lines dividing black from white all over town…. Change! It seemed to be everywhere except Laurel.”
Even so, Mengestu presents Chicago as a legitimate escape hatch. A place like the John Hancock Tower, recently built in the novel’s chronology, isn’t just a symbol of American industrial might triumphing over global chaos, though it is also that. Here it’s a symbol of itself, a physical manifestation of stability, security, even human kindness. “I want to touch it,” Isaac says when they arrive there. They do. “I wanted to say it was softer than I expected,” Helen says.
Novel: Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (The Penguin Press)
Set in: Central Ohio, 1977
Here’s Why We’re Going There: To see how racism and sexual repression haunts and wounds. James, a scholar of Chinese descent, married Marilyn, a good white Southern girl, and they settled in Middlewood, “a tiny college town of three thousand, where driving an hour gets you only to Toledo, where a Saturday night out means the roller rink or the bowling alley or the drive-in, where even Middlewood Lake, as the center of town, is really just a glorified pond.” That glorified pond is where their eldest daughter, Lydia, is found dead, leaving her parents and her brother, Nath, bereft and searching.
Everything I Never Told You is an attractive corner-lot Craftsman home of a novel, its carefully constructed sentences serving a carefully intricate plot. All that care occasionally dampens its emotional effect, giving the small Ohio town a too-precious tone of lost innocence. (Many pages are given over to Nath’s obsession with the Moon landing.) But Ng plainly exposes the bigotry of American culture at the time, from the suspicions of James (who studies cowboys in popular culture) marrying a white woman to constant sexist judgments brought upon Marilyn, who was all but strong-armed away from pursuing a medical degree.
An article relating to Lydia’s death carries the headline, “Children of Mixed Backgrounds Often Struggle to Find Their Place,” and Ng makes it clear that this was a time when a story of a dead half-Asian girl was written before it was reported. But Lydia’s absence suggests that a hoped-for change in values may be absent too. Before Lydia’s death, her father harbored the hope that society would improve after navigating the “slights of the day: how two little girls, hopscotching on the corner, had seen him brake at the stop sign and thrown pebbles at his car; how Stan Hewitt had asked him the difference between a spring roll and an egg roll…. Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have the friends to say, Don’t be an idiot, Stan, how the hell would she know?” Things may be different for young, bright Nath, but then he’s going to Harvard.
Novel: Timothy Schaffert, The Swan Gondola (Riverhead)
Set in: Omaha, 1898
Here’s Why We’re Going There: To see the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition—the World’s Fair—and to remember that craven Midwestern greed wasn’t exclusive to Chicago. Also, to fall in love.
Schaffert’s second novel is set during the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, which can’t help but pale in comparison to Chicago’s grand Columbian Exposition five years earlier. Ferret Skerritt, the itinerant ventriloquist narrator, is a deep skeptic about the fair’s ability to be anything but a money-grab. “The Omaha World’s Fair had seemed, to those of us in the city’s lower, dirtier parts, the follow of the wealthy and their wives…. In Chicago, there was beauty and class. There was wealth and money well spent. In Omaha, the only rich men I’d ever worked among were the cattle barons in their carriages outside the auction houses.” We’re not in My Antonia anymore.
The Swan Gondola is a heavily brocaded tale of lovers and rivals, low-lifes and fat cats. Ferret falls for Cecily, a single mother playing Marie Antoinette on the midway while fending off the advances of William Wakefield, one of the fair’s wealthy organizers. Schaffert suggests plenty of echoes between life in this “strange, sudden kingdom” of 1898 and contemporary life, from single motherhood, slum life, and political jingoism. (William McKinley makes an appearance, stumping for the Spanish-American War). Bread and circuses, then as now, were a way to paper over serious problems: “It was the Fair that brought the smallpox,” someone tells Ferrit. “People carried in with them all sorts of plagues. And any money that came in just fattened the wallets of the corrupt.”
Still, The Swan Gondola thrives on the frisson between its social critique and its more soft-hearted sensibilities, and one occasionally spills over to the other. Toward the end of the novel, Ferrit can’t resist romanticizing the grandeur of the event a little: “I imagined what would happen if the Fair wasn’t razed but left to decay, nature taking the land back, returning it to the miles of dying fields it was before…. The fairgrounds deserved to become a sad, battered monument to every lost thing of beauty.”
Mark Athitakis has written on books for many publications. He lives in Phoenix but grew up in Chicago.
Photo by Christopher Michel [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons