Collins, Michael. The Keepers of Truth. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Bill, a reporter for the Daily Truth, has returned home to the once-thriving town in downstate Illinois where his grandfather, an immigrant who had escaped the crushing poverty of the Russian steppes, had singlehandedly built a now-defunct refrigerator manufacturing empire. Although Bill attempts to use his position to pontificate on the decline of the American Dream, he is expected to report exclusively on local bake-offs and high school sports rivalries.
His boss’s attitude shifts, however, when Old Man Lawton turns up murdered and all signs point to his son, Ronny, a body-building loose cannon who works as a short-order cook at Denny’s. Sensing this might be his last opportunity for a big scoop (before he sells out to the Big City Paper), Bill’s boss sends him out to cover the Ronny Lawton story. Which, of course, turns out to be similar to his own: Ronny Lawton is a man who feels trapped by the seeming inevitabilities of familial heritage, whose rapidly shrinking pool of career options leaves him floundering in the sort of defiant self-hatred that, as Bill might say, “usually gets taken out on kids in supermarkets and checkout lines.”
The question that preys most heavily on the reader’s mind, however, is not “who killed Ronny Lawton’s father?” but “why on Earth did Bill leave Chicago and move back to this awful place?” The answer is not because he failed at law school. Nor did Bill labor under any noble illusion of reversing the town’s hard luck and bringing it back to its glorious heyday.
The answer is more complicated. Although Bill hates this place, he’s drawn back to it out of a debilitating sense of familial guilt: if he did not come home, there wouldn’t be anyone to witness the death of the place his grandfather built (and which drove his father to suicide). If Bill did not return, no one would be around to observe that without any meaningful work to do, Rust Belt people were as trapped and purposeless as zoo animals during the winter. No one would be around to suggest that “the truth” was just whatever the corporate-entertainment-culture complex said it was.
In other words, someone’s got to be there to identify the body.
What’s most interesting about The Keepers of Truth is that it’s written by an outsider. Michael Collins is an Irish immigrant who originally came to the United States on an athletic scholarship in the 1980s. Between semesters he drove around the country in an old station wagon, sleeping in parking lots and documenting the slow death of American prosperity. As a result, The Keepers of Truth is filled with a bleakness that can only come from an impartial observer, someone who doesn’t impose his own nostalgia upon the place. Although The Keepers of Truth does a meritorious job capturing the mood of the Reagan-era Rust Belt, it lacks the poignancy of Crooked River Burning because there’s no possibility of a better future.
Instead, it’s the stark chronicle of a culture that — perhaps — is best left to die.