Rust Belt Reader

May 3, 2010

Interested in Contributing?

Filed under: Introductions — by cborne @ 3:34 pm

I’ve had to put the Rust Belt Reader on hold because I’ve accepted a 12-month project archivist position at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. So in addition to being the managing editor of Cleveland Area History and working on my own fiction projects, I won’t have much time for critical reading until next spring.

In the meantime, if you would like to submit a book review or write a guest post about Rust Belt fiction or Rust Belt culture, please feel free to email me at rustbeltreader [at] gmail [dot] com.


February 27, 2010

Review: The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes

McClelland, Ted. The Third Coast: Sailors, Strippers, Fishermen, Folksingers, Long-Haired Ojibway Painters and God-Save-the-Queen Monarchists of the Great Lakes. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.

In The Third Coast, Chicago-based writer Ted McClelland embarks on a three-month circle tour of the Great Lakes in search of a common regional culture.

I’ve been wanting to read a book like this since I came across Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean in a bookstore in Glastonbury. Facing the Ocean posits that (archaeologically, at least) the people of the Atlantic coasts of Europe , from Ireland to Iberia, are more like each other than like their own inland countrymen. I suspected the same might be true for the people of the Great Lakes (I personally feel more in common with Buffalo and Detroit than with the rest of Ohio).

I won’t attempt to analyze McClelland’s entire book, but rather the three chapters where the Great Lakes meets the Rust Belt: Chapter 21, The Irony of Buffalo (including Buffalo and Erie, PA); Chapter 22, Ethnic Jazz (Cleveland); and Chapter 23, Black Bottom Blues (Detroit).

The Rust Belt subculture of the Great Lakes culture is summed up perfectly by McClelland’s companion on a boat trip down the Buffalo River, past the decaying remnants of long-forgotten industry:

“There’s few things that Buffalo has done perfectly. [But it has] perfectly separated the citizens from the waterfront.” (more…)

February 23, 2010

Evidence for the Emergence of Rust Belt Fiction

Filed under: Rust Belt Culture,The Keepers of Truth,Themes — by cborne @ 8:47 pm

Rust Belt fiction is ready to emerge as a genre. Here are two pieces of evidence that recently caught my eye. First:

“How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” (The Atlantic, March 2010)

As I read this article, I kept thinking about how closely it described the overall mood in The Keepers of Truth. Particularly the conflict between jobless men and their wives, and the idea that women fare better in a lousy economy than men. The Rust Belt has long been flailing in the economic mire that the rest of the country is just now sinking into, so it’s possible that this Rust Belt-ization of America will act as a catalyst for the emergence of Rust Belt fiction as a genre, or that American literary fiction in general will start to resemble what Michael Collins was writing in 2001.

There’s also what Burgh Diaspora‘s Jim Russell calls a “Rust Belt Chic” in the air — a rough, offbeat quirkiness that perseveres despite the joblessness, poverty, and despair. He cites Anthony Bourdain, who last year shot a series of No Reservations episodes in the Rust Belt:

I think that troubled cities often tragically misinterpret what’s coolest about themselves. They scramble for cure-alls, something that will “attract business”, always one convention center, one pedestrian mall or restaurant district away from revival. They miss their biggest, best and probably most marketable asset: their unique and slightly off-center character. Few people go to New Orleans because it’s a “normal” city — or a “perfect” or “safe” one. They go because it’s crazy, borderline dysfunctional, permissive, shabby, alcoholic and bat shit crazy — and because it looks like nowhere else. Cleveland is one of my favorite cities. I don’t arrive there with a smile on my face every time because of the Cleveland Philarmonic.

This Rust Belt appeal that Bourdain describes is, however, not something I’ve found much evidence of in the literary world. It’s a niche that is begging to be filled.

January 30, 2010

Review: The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

Robertson, Don. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2008. (Originally published in hardback in 1965.)

Nine-year-old Morris Bird III is a timid sort of boy with a precocious sense of right and wrong. After hearing his teacher describe the brave deeds of James A. Garfield, Morris makes up his mind to atone for all the lily-livered mistakes he’s made and earn himself some “selfresepect.” The best course of action, he decides, is to embark on an epic pedestrian journey to see his best friend, who just moved a whopping two miles away to the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood of Cleveland. As fate would have it, the day he chooses is October 20, 1944 — the day of the infamous East Ohio Gas Explosion. (Also see the Cleveland Memory Project photos of the explosion and aftermath.)

(Because I like looking at city maps, I’ve recreated approximately the walking route that Morris Bird III used. Point B is the epicenter of the Gas Explosion disaster.)

What interested me most about The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread was the portrait of two Cleveland neighborhoods — Hough and St. Clair-Superior — that took a huge beating in the postwar suburban flight epidemic (and which have never entirely recovered). This was a pre-Rust Belt era. Cleveland was a more densely populated place where people lived smaller, more localized lives, where they walked to the store and rode streetcars to work, a place where East 63 and St. Clair and East 91 and Hough were thought of as worlds apart, and not just to a child’s mind.

It’s tempting to dismiss The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread as a mere nostalgia piece. There are, in American literature, a lot of literary reminiscences about being a child during the 1940s. But such a distinction misses the point: the book is a tragic coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, made doubly tragic by the fact that nine is awfully young to come of age. (After all, a grown man would not normally feel nostalgic about seeing his best pal incinerated right before his eyes.)

It’s also important to note that the book was first published shortly before a conflagration of a different kind — the Hough Riots, which took place in the neighborhood where Morris Bird III lived. As Mark Winegardner illustrates in Crooked River Burning, the Hough Riots were as good a symbol as any of Cleveland’s own loss of innocence.

Don Robertson earned the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1966 for The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. He wrote two additional books featuring Morris Bird III, The Sum and Total of Now and The Greatest Thing that Almost Happened. The Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature presented Robertson with the Mark Twain Award in 1991.

January 28, 2010

Review: The Keepers of Truth

Collins, Michael. The Keepers of Truth. New York: Scribner, 2001. The Keepers of Truth

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.

January 21, 2010

Has the term “Rust Belt” Outlived its Usefulness?

Filed under: American Rust,Rust as Metamorphosis,Rust Belt Culture — by cborne @ 7:29 pm

This week WCPN listeners got a chance to sound off about their overwhelming — and I mean overwhelmingdislike of the term “Rust Belt.”

So has “Rust Belt” outlived its usefulness? Well, that depends on what you want to use it for. “Rust Belt” was never meant as a marketing slogan, but rather to describe a region suffering from a period of economic decline.

There are three ways people use the term “Rust Belt”:

  1. As an impartial, shorthand reference to the region that was once America’s manufacturing belt;
  2. As a pejorative reference to that same region, suggestive of stagnation and decay;
  3. As a defiant badge of pride, much like “Dixie”

What do I think? Although I have less interest in imposing a positive or negative interpretation on the term, I’ll admit to using “Rust Belt” to describe my own geographic heritage (as opposed to “Midwestern” or “Ohioan.”) I suspect that liking or disliking it is often a generational issue: people who remember gleaming steel think of Rust as a bad thing, but those of us who don’t remember anything else and like it here…well, Rust is just our culture. There is a passage in American Rust where young Billy Poe contemplates the broken-down, overgrown landscape that used to be the thriving steel mill town of Buell, Pennsylvania. To the older residents of Buell, the ruins represent failure. But Billy associates them with the happy moments in his childhood, when he roamed the landscape learning about trees and animals. To Billy, these ruins are beautiful because they’re all he’s ever known.

The Rust Belt question always brings to mind a story from an old episode of This American Life, where a Brooklyn musician transforms his Hasidic friend Chaim into an underground rock star. They decide to call him Curly Oxide, owing to Chaim’s rust-colored payots, and because oxidation (i.e., rust) represents one thing changing into another thing.

In other words, Rust doesn’t have to symbolize decay. It can symbolize metamorphosis.

January 6, 2010

2010: The Year of Rust Belt Fiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — by cborne @ 11:41 pm

I predict that this is the year that Rust Belt fiction will start to take off. And that this is the decade when the Rust Belt will confront its own history and turn it into art.

There is an audience who is really hungering for honest, clever, artistic interpretations of the  Rust Belt. What evidence do I have? Take the snarky, self-effacing Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism videos:

There’s a reason why people responded so strongly and fervently to these videos — they fill an artistic gap that, say, regional marketing campaigns can and will never fill. No matter how clever or catchy they are.

Why can’t marketing-speak fill that gap? Because marketing by its very nature isn’t totally honest – you have to admit that. It takes the positive and blows it up — that’s how it achieves its purpose. Art looks at all angles, even when they hurt. Art and marketing are not the same thing. People think they want to be happy all the time, but art tells us that they don’t — they want to experience the full range of human emotions.

The best art emerging from the Rust Belt will be truthful and transformative. It will be thought up by hard-luck underachievers waiting for the bus, not in the conference rooms of any marketing firms. It won’t croon about what fun times can be had at the trendiest faux dive bars, but it will chronicle the anguish of those who are desperately trying to hold on to a long-dead ideal.

December 17, 2009

The Lost Cause and the American Dream in Ruins

Last night I watched Gone With the Wind on Turner Classic Movies. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was only vaguely familiar with the storyline. And I’ve always been a little puzzled by people who go crazy over Clark Gable.

Rust Belt Literature probably has a lot in common with Southern Literature. As a story, Gone With the Wind shares many of the same characteristics as Crooked River Burning. It starts out in an improbably idyllic time that you watch uncomfortably because you know it’s going to end. There’s an equally doomed romance to keep an eye on. Both stories are big and filled with a dizzying array of historical details (including the not-so-subtle racism of the times).

And just as Gone With the Wind illustrates the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, an overarching theme of Crooked River Burning might be called “American Dream in Ruins.”  That is, focusing on that tenuous period between the birth of the middle class, and when that middle class began to falter — the period that Rust Belters look back on with as much problematic nostalgia as Lost Cause Southerners looked back upon the Confederacy.

December 12, 2009

Review: Crooked River Burning

Crooked River BurningWinegardner, Mark. Crooked River Burning. New York: Harvest Books, 2001.

Crooked River Burning has been in my to-read pile since 2006, when I bought a copy of Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio, for which Mark Winegardner penned the afterword, “Toward a Literature of the Midwest.”

(Though I didn’t know it at the time, the roots of Rust Belt Reader took hold right then and there.)

In his afterword, Winegardner grimly recounts the following experience with his publishers, prior to the publication of Crooked River Burning:

We went into a big conference room. The marketing director started the meeting by saying (after admitting she hadn’t read the novel), “We see this as a strong regional book.” If it does well in the Midwest, she says, there’s hope it might catch on elsewhere.

They all seemed surprised when I asked if the elevator went to the roof, so I could go jump off.

However, this was long before All Things Local became the boutique obsession of the intellectual class, before consumers craved “authenticity” (a dressed-up marketing term for “slumming it”), before Detroit’s ruined urban landscape became emblematic of a corporate greed gone not just wild but metastatic, before recession chic became de rigueur in the Real Simple parlors of the elite. (more…)

December 4, 2009

What’s On My Reading List

Filed under: Reading List — by cborne @ 9:33 pm

Library of Congress subject headings can be wonderful things. Whether you need a plumbing manual or a GRE study guide, they can help you find exactly what you’re looking for in a matter of seconds.

But they can also be imperfect things. (I can say that — I’m a librarian.) For example, there’s no subject heading for “Rust Belt — Fiction.” And even if you look up something like “Pittsburgh — Fiction” or “Cleveland — Fiction,” there’s no guarantee that the book is really going to be about that place, if you catch my drift. For some stories, the setting is irrelevant. They could take place in Youngstown or on Jupiter — it would make no difference.

So how do you find these elusive Rust Belt tales? Well, that’s the tricky part, something I plan on sharing as I go. For now, though, I’ve come up with five  worthy candidates to start with. Here’s what’s on my current to-read list:

Crooked River Burning (Mark Winegardner; 2001)

The Keepers of Truth (Michael Collins; 2000)

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread (Don Robertson; 1965; reissued 2008)

Steel Ashes (Karen Rose Cercone; 1997)

Good Roots: Writers Reflect on Growing Up in Ohio (ed. Lisa Watts; 2007)

I’m happy to accept suggestions, so feel free to leave them in the comments or email rustbeltreader [at] gmail [dot] com.

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