Bridge Across the Country: On the Literature of the Midwest

By posted at 6:00 am on November 1, 2012 24

covercoverDriving to Des Moines, Iowa, I picked up a hitchhiker, a young man from San Diego who’d spent the past few months in the Midwest and was traveling to Chicago. On the way to the city, we talked about various things: our points of origin; politics after passing a field plowed into the shape of Mitt Romney’s logo; literature, from Joyce to McCarthy and Dickens, “you should try to serialize your work;” to the troubles of meeting people on the plains. “It’s just so spread out,” he said.

I was coming from Nebraska, a new arrival myself, headed east to visit a friend. Before I came across the hitchhiker, I’d been thinking about two authors local to the area, Tom Drury and David Rhodes, and their works. In particular I was thinking about a scene from Drury’s Hunts in Dreams. In the scene, Charles Darling, a good for nothing from Drury’s earlier The End of Vandalism, sneaks into an old woman’s home to steal an heirloom shotgun and replace it with another. Hearing the woman come down the stairs, Charles takes a seat rather than risk a bullet on his way out. Before he can turn a light on, the woman, Farina, belts him with a coathanger. He tells her who he is, at which point she turns on the light and gives him some ice for his nose. After discussing the shotguns, Charles leaves with both, being decided the rightful owner of the heirloom. Where in the world could this be the end result of a midnight breaking and entering?

Though Drury’s book has no specific location other than a fictional Grouse County, after arriving in Des Moines, I would place my bet on Iowa — Drury was born there, after all. Upon arrival at my friend’s place, I was welcomed into the house in an offhanded sort of way, as if I were a local boy who came by every so often to play and eat whatever was on the counter. This is a peculiar sort of behavior, and it’s something I hadn’t seen since I actually was a child, living in a country cul-de-sac.

covercoverI grew up in Ohio. Until grad school, the largest city I’d ever lived in had a meager and falling population of 60,000. I grew up with blue collar people, veterans, farmers, but they were rarely who I read about. The little bit of literature I was exposed to in my early days was not rich in Midwestern ties. The Grapes of Wrath is closest, though Oklahoma is nebulously neither the Midwest nor the South. Aside from the geographically relevant works of Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison, there wasn’t a whole lot I’d read that I might consider Midwestern. The only real example is from my junior year in college, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is set in Iowa in the 1950s. Robinson’s Iowa is as close as I’d come to the bucolia of my youth.

This, thankfully, changed once I set out beyond the Midwest itself. While in L.A. and San Francisco respectively, I stumbled on the works of Drury and Rhodes. Drury is famous for a verisimilitude in character and prose so exacting that it seems improbable, while Rhodes has built his books around a certain amount of the preternatural.

coverIn The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Rhodes camps the Sledge family at the rim of an enormous hole in Des Moines. The Sledges, a hard, skilled people, are warned that there is another city within Des Moines, a “lower city,” which is the very pit in their backyard. The hole is covered in fog, emits strange sounds, and no one that enters ever returns. The protagonist, Reuben Sledge, must navigate both cities while witnessing the collapse of his family. Despite the unreal elements, Rhodes spends much of the book analyzing relatively normal people, and much of his later work examines Midwesterners with a bent approaching magical realism. These works are filled with the simple and stoic people I knew, the towns made of one or two intersections that aren’t worth a stoplight.

Then there is the new Midwest of the past few years. Bonnie Jo Campbell, Frank Bill, and Patrick Michael Finn’s Midwest. If the Midwest is not surreal, as with Drury and Rhodes, it is made hyper-real. The Midwest of Bill and Finn is full of the meth-addled and downtrodden. This is, admittedly, a Midwest I know as well as the other. My hometown is the drug capital of a drug-plagued county. The city I lived in before leaving for school was and is desperately poor. For all the Midwest’s evenhandedness, much of it has been embittered by the recession, and the work ethic we’re known for, when without direction, becomes destructive. The literature of this Midwest shows this side of us, the hardened and hungry folk. It forgets, largely, the generous people I know they co-exist with.

coverThere is no disservice being done here, I think. While Drury is caught up in the day to day and Rhodes works unique bildungsromans, the new Midwestern writers pick up on the other side of the tracks. Finn’s collection, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, explores the fallen industrial city of Joliet, Illinois, and its stories are as familiar to me as Drury’s. The accounting for this co-existence is a simple one: the Midwest accommodates an enormous amount of difference already. Instead of being a region known for a certain type of character (you cannot, I expect, call an Ohioan to mind as easily as a Californian, a Texan, a New Yorker), in truth the region is not only its own, but also the bridge between these disparate cultures and literatures. The Midwest holds part of both the Rust and Bible Belts, contains flatlands, hills, mountains in the Ozarks, and the beginnings of the Appalachians. I have seen cacti growing on a cliff in Nebraska, where just across a lake are the Sandhills, America’s best grazing land. In the Big Ten Conference alone people are known to bleed entirely different colors.

coverMidwestern literature rides this fence, trying to act both as its own entity — perhaps why its residents are so often somehow extra-real — and as a bridge between literatures. This is, I think, the answer behind our relative quiet, that and our native stoicism. Our literature often enough hops over into the Western, much of it goes Southern. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, conversely, sounds Midwestern to my ear, despite taking place in Colorado. In much the same way that the Central Ohioan accent is the American norm — the accent you hear every day on the news — Midwestern literature has perhaps simply been shelved as “American.”

Leaving Iowa just a few nights ago, I was struck by the similarity of the land in the dark to a number of places I had been. In an hour, I saw a field of wind turbines that reminded me of the Texas Panhandle. The shadows of the Loess Hills looked like southeastern Ohio in hour two, and rounding certain corners I expected to be bathed in the gold light that rolls across the horizon in southern California. The Iowa of Drury and Rhodes, the hitchhiker’s bridge across the country. I saw all of that, and after three hours I was home.

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24 Responses to “Bridge Across the Country: On the Literature of the Midwest”

  1. Paul
    at 9:20 am on November 1, 2012

    I’m always glad to see the Midwest discussed here. It seems like too often people act like literature only comes from, or is set in, New York or the West Coast.

    Anyone have any other recommendations for literature set in the Midwest?

  2. Joel
    at 10:14 am on November 1, 2012

    Donald Ray Pollock is another good one, his work is set in southern Ohio [the area bordering Kentucky] but is more Appalachian in tone. It’s tough stuff, sort of like the work of Bonnie Jo Campball and Frank Bill.

    I couldn’t put down his latest, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME.

  3. Joe Schuster
    at 11:23 am on November 1, 2012

    It’s great to see especially Tom Drury get attention; his END OF VANDALISM is a wonderful yet sadly under-appreciated novel. Since someone asked for other recommendations, there’s a great (but also under-appreciated) academic novel that is definitely midwestern, STONER by John Williams — and then of course, while the essay focuses mostly on small-town or mid-sized town Midwest, there are a lot of wonderful Chicago writers. While Bellow won the Nobel, I think it’s good to take any chance to suggest people read him and Stuart Dybek’s COAST OF CHICAGO and CHILDHOOD AND OTHER NEIGHBORHOODS are both wonderful books. Another Illinois writer, Jean Thompson’s THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME is a recent novel that also deserves every reader it can get.

  4. Afternoon Bites: Ian McEwan on Novellas, Cumberbatch as Epstein, Midwestern Literature, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 2:02 pm on November 1, 2012

    […] The Millions on Midwestern lit. […]

  5. Jenn Shapland
    at 3:33 pm on November 1, 2012

    Dan Chaon writes what some have called “midwestern gothic.” I’d add him to this list.

  6. On the Literature of the Midwest. – Todd Library: Featured Resources Blog
    at 5:00 pm on November 1, 2012

    […] The Millions : Bridge Across the Country: On the Literature of the Midwest. […]

  7. Adam Fleming Petty
    at 5:41 pm on November 1, 2012

    I’m a Midwesterner myself (Hoosier, specifically), and have to say the work that best gets the feel of the place is W. Gass’ IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY. It’s an interior, digressive novella, full of praise and vitriol, and it’s this very interiority that is most representative of the region. We here have less of a landscape, less of a mythology, imposing themselves on our own imaginations. We live so much in our heads that our struggle is translating our thoughts for others. Gass depicts this bilocating as well as anyone.

    The Midwest: It’s bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.

  8. Tee
    at 6:31 pm on November 1, 2012

    Chris Coake’s “You Came Back,” published earlier this year.

  9. Phil Christman
    at 8:28 pm on November 1, 2012

    I knew this article, and this thread, were gonna be awesome as soon as I saw the names Drury and Rhodes. Rhodes’s first three novels kill me.

    Other Midwest-lit: William Maxwell was from Illinois, wasn’t he? DFW has some amazing things to say about Illinois fields and skies. William Gass has been mentioned, but in addition to IN THE HEART, I felt like the sections of THE TUNNEL that dealt with Kohler’s childhood accurately captured a certain kind of Ohio familial meanness. Michael Martone writes about Indiana beautifully and weirdly, as it deserves.

    Larry Woiwode has gotten kind of weird and fundamentalist and grumpy in recent years, but he’s amazing.

    I have not read Kellie Wells’s work yet, but people have recommended her to me and she’s one of ours, geographically speaking.
    (I grew up in Michigan, BTW. Just to get those credentials on the table.)

    Oooh, I just discovered that there’s a whole lit journal devoted to black writers from the Midwest! I am now going to go read it.

  10. paula bomer
    at 8:58 pm on November 1, 2012

    I grew up in Indiana and it greatly informs who I am and a lot of my writing, even when I’m not specifically writing about the Midwest, although of course, I do write about the Midwest, too. Nice piece, Eric. Congrats on it!

  11. Adam Fleming Petty
    at 9:29 am on November 2, 2012

    He’s too modest to say so, but the above Phil Christman re-discovered David Rhodes, in a Bolaño-esque journey-quest. Check it:

  12. Eric
    at 10:03 am on November 2, 2012

    It’s great to see some new names here.

    I wish I could shake your hand, Mr. Christman. The Last Fair Deal moved me in a way most books rarely do. (And thank you, Mr. Petty, for pointing that out.)

    There’s a lot of great writing coming out of the Midwest from folks who haven’t quite hit it yet. Another place doing good work in that regard is fledgling journal MIdwest Gothic. They’re friends of mine and I can’t help but toot their horn:

  13. paula bomer
    at 6:14 pm on November 2, 2012

    Oh, and can I mention the book I edited and published, Cul de Sac by Scott Wrobel? It’s fantastic and Donald Ray Pollock thought so too (he blurbed it!). It’s a collection of stories that all take place in an exurb of Minneapolis, It’s gotten – deservedly –great reviews.
    More info and links to reviews here-

  14. Pete
    at 6:49 pm on November 2, 2012

    Fine piece, but I must gently point out that Joliet is in Illinois, not Indiana. (I live there, and my wife is a native.) But thanks for introducing me to Finn, whom I’m now eager to check out further. Though from the notices I’ve seen of his books, I doubt he’ll be warmly embraced by the Joliet chamber of commerce.

  15. Eric
    at 8:06 pm on November 2, 2012

    Paula: I’m glad you did mention him. I could swear I’ve crossed Wrobel’s name before, somewhere.

    Pete: You’re quite right–I’m not sure how I managed to slip that up. Thank you for pointing it out.

  16. Judy Krueger
    at 11:51 am on November 4, 2012

    I second The Year We Left Home, Jean Thompson
    All of Sara Paretsky’s W I Warshawski mysteries set in Chicago
    Jane Smiley: Good Faith especially
    Yes, there are females from the midwest who write novels!

  17. Michael
    at 10:15 pm on November 4, 2012

    Another really terrific Midwestern novel to add to this list is Don Kurtz’s SOUTH OF THE BIG FOUR, which was originally recommended to me by short-story writer Andrew Scott. Kurtz’s novel captures Indiana just perfectly.

  18. Andrew Scott
    at 9:05 am on November 5, 2012

    I gave that book to Michael, and I give it to other serious readers, because it’s probably my favorite novel. At least top five. I’m biased, yes, as SOUTH OF THE BIG FOUR showed me that my neck of the woods was worthy of fiction. Don Kurtz is from Champaign, but had family in Indiana, where I live. I attended the MFA program at New Mexico State, where Don taught Spanish. It was my good luck that he was asked to lead the workshop one semester, and my good fortune that he decided to become my friend.

    I endorse the recommendations of Campbell, Pollock, Thompson, Dybek, Chaon, and others above (and Schuster’s novel, too!).

  19. C. Max Magee
    at 2:40 pm on November 5, 2012

    Thanks, Pete. We’ve fixed.

  20. Shelley
    at 1:39 pm on November 6, 2012

    And don’t forget: the Plains extend to Texas.

  21. Alumni News – November 2012 | Bartleby: The UC Riverside MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts News Blog
    at 2:17 pm on November 6, 2012

    […] at The Millions, you can read Eric Shonkwiler’s (’11) essay on Midwest lit, Bridge Across the Country. Share on Facebook This entry was posted in Other. Bookmark the permalink. ← Welcome to […]

  22. Elizabeth Tallent
    at 5:01 pm on November 8, 2012

    His interests (and his novels’ subjects) range so widely over the planet that it may be hard to see him as belonging to one place in particular, but in Richard Powers, the Midwest has a brilliant native son. The ecological devastation a detergent corporation inflicts on an Illinois community is seen with lacerating clarity in his novel Gain, as is the consolation a cancer patient feels when she drives her garden trowel into the rich black dirt of her backyard. The resplendent citizen-of-the-planet braininess of his prose needs this counterpart, this deep feeling for the local light and weather and the weight of people’s concerns and the rhythms of their conversations.

  23. Literary Links: November 23 | BOOK CLUB CLASSICS!
    at 2:14 am on November 23, 2012

    […] Midwest literature […]

  24. terese svoboda
    at 11:58 am on December 31, 2012

    Chopped liver here–after thirteen books, my last declared one of the best Westerns of 2012–perhaps the reissue of my Tin God will introduce you to my work, all thirteen books.

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