Rust Belt Fiction: Chapter 1

I’m just now finishing up all the pieces to go up on the latest Cleveland Review, and it’s not till now — having read each story and poem, the writers’ other work, their connection to the Rust Belt – that I’m beginning to fully appreciate how important The Cleveland Review is.

When I decided to really start writing about three years ago, I had to ask myself, what stories did I have to tell, what kinds of things did I have to write about. And pretty quickly I started looking at the world around me, to the places, beautiful or not, that I’d begun to catalog here as a journalist. And when I began to write about union votes and brownfields, rust and chicken pie and yinz, I started to wonder how that fit into the broad scheme of things. I started looking for the heritage of Rust Belt Literature.

Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I didn’t find much, and reading the remarks from other Cleveland Review contributors, it seems there’s others hungry for the same.

I think our first desire is for our culture to be represented. Through movies and music and books, it seems we have a pretty firm grasp on the culture in every tiny neighborhood of New York City and half the ones in Boston. Chicago has a whole set of characters on SNL; Austin has its art scene; Portland has “Portlandia;” and LA is LA. It goes on and on and it seems so many other regions already have representation: the Southwest has Cormac McCarthy; you could probably argue New England has Stephen King; and even the less densely populated Ozarks have representation in Daniel Woodrell.

But what about the Rust Belt? There’s Michael Chabon, who Burgh Diaspora, quoting a Guardian article, has recently mentioned, uses the “grit” of Pittsburgh as a background. And although I love “Wonder Boys” and “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” you really can’t call any of it Rust Belt Ficiton. And as fellow members on goodreads.com point out, there is the mystery writing of Les Roberts, “Crooked River” by Mark Winegardner, a “Simple Plan,” by Scott Smith, and I’d add “American Rust” by Philipp Meyer as being the closest to matching some definition of Rust Belt Fiction.

But like one Cleveland Review photographer, Bridget Callahan, put it, we’re looking for our Flannery O’Connor. And so far, the closest thing we’ve gotten is “Youngstown,” by Bruce Springsteen.

I think we’re looking for someone to set the story straight. As Cleveland Review poet, Rochelle Hurt, writes recently, most outsiders’ first impression of the Rust Belt is that it’s depressed. A recent article on The Cleveland Review, talks about how the older generation resents the term “rust belt.” But those of us that grew up after the massive layoffs and grew up living amongst the vacant monuments to industry, we embrace it all. Sure that may be a bit perverse, and surely I don’t speak for everyone, but we’re living amongst history and ruins, and now, at some kind of bottom, are surrounded by great potential.

And that’s argument one, why The Cleveland Review is important, because although we don’t yet have a Flannery O’Connor or Cormac McCarthy, there seems to be a lot of writers willing and interested and able to express what the Rust Belt is and what we really are.

Argument two is that this kind of writing and thought is important and necessary for the future of the Rust Belt. Like I said, we’re living amongst history. In Brooks Rexroat’s story, that means abandoned coke ovens and other apparati; as Hurt writes, it means our towns are “jallopy-strewn.” There are countless factories and mills, tracks and bronwfields, that sit vacant and fallow, to remind us, 1) of the great power and success these towns and cities and burghs had; and 2) The mistakes that felled them.

Sure there are overarching, nebulous lessons to be learned, that selling out on American industry while a much cheaper labor force was waiting to be tapped outside our borders, or vice versa, that fair trade and labor practices can’t be ignored, I’m thinking of something much more tangible. Like the poisoned soil of the countless brownfields around the region. That sit empty and undeveloped because of carelessness, and probably worse, with dangerous materials. And even beyond the corporate level, these ruins serve to remind us of the municipal mistakes we made, too. Here municipal mismanagement compounded the effects of the industrial fall and crippled the local government financially, even to this day.

Newspaper reports and accounts can only enumerate and express the factual causes and effects. They can’t even approach the ability that fiction has to take the emotions of all of it, parse them, and begin to present the full picture.

Fiction gives us a way to understand our struggles in a way that non-fiction never will be able to. I mean, what do you remember of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? I remember John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” And it’s true so many times: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” etc.

This writing, Rust Belt Fiction and Poetry, reminds us of our past so we can learn from it, it helps us process the emotional burden so we can get past it, it provides a light to the future.

Until our Flannery O’Connor, our Cormac McCarthy, our John Steinbeck emerges, tapping a whole chorus of Rust Belt voices will more than suffice. Will likely do more than one voice ever could. And for that, you have to thank the editors of The Cleveland Review.

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