Any novel that takes Cleveland for its subject has a long legacy of ridicule to live up to. Yet Mark Winegardner's funny, tough, and elegiac Crooked River Burning
is up to the task, tracing the city's devolution from steel-making powerhouse to the butt of an entire nation's jokes. Along the way the author manages to work in a number of peculiarly American (and, as it turns out, peculiarly Clevelandian) preoccupations: rock & roll, civil rights, labor, organized crime, JFK, professional sport. Mix and match themes like these with a star-crossed romance, and you have all the makings of a Big American Novel, complete with its own stoic, sad-sack refrain: "If a thing like this is going to happen, it just figures it'd happen here."
And a Big American Novel it is--perhaps self-consciously so. The hero, David Zielinsky, is the earnest young product of Cleveland's ethnic, blue-collar West Side; his dream girl, Anne O'Connor, hails from snooty Shaker Heights and is smarter, prettier, and richer than anyone she knows. It's no surprise when these two fall in love, but they spend many years tiptoeing around this inevitability. In the interim David marries, starts a family, and nurses political ambitions, while Anne forges her own career in local TV news. Winegardner, meanwhile, has other fish to fry. He devotes entire chapters to such local luminaries as Dorothy Fuldheim, the city's woman broadcasting pioneer; Carl Stokes, its groundbreaking black mayor; Alan Freed, the DJ who credited himself with naming rock & roll; and more sports heroes, seasons, and individual games than you can shake an American institution at.
These are fascinating stories. It does, to be sure, take some time to get used to the constant, hectoring intrusion of the second person: "You lived in the present, dreamed of the future, and, until you were an old man, thought little of the past. And in a country with a fascist's love of victory, few understood that you rode into history on a rocket called defeat." In the end, though, all stylistic quibbles pale next to the wisdom and generosity with which Winegardner has drawn his characters--including the city itself. Anne loves her hometown "the way one loves a loyal family pet during its arthritic, bad-smelling final years," but one senses that for the author, the sentiment goes much deeper than that. Its very failures are lovely to him, and its persistence more lovely yet. As Anne herself might paraphrase Beckett: It can't go on. It goes on. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
In this ambitious novel, Winegardner captures the interior life of Cleveland, Ohio, from the city's peak in the '40s to its lowest ebb in 1969, when the Cuyahoga River, saturated with pollutants, famously caught fire. David Zielinsky, first seen in 1948, is a 14-year-old raised in the ethnic enclave of Old Brooklyn, a Cleveland neighborhood. Since his mother drowned in California, he has lived with his Aunt Betty and Uncle Stan Lychak, instead of with Mikey Z., his father, a mob-connected Teamster Union official. Uncle Stan is a private detective who once worked for the great Eliot Ness. On the other side of town, in Shaker Heights, Anne O'Connor, the daughter of the ex-mayor and Democratic machine boss, Thomas O'Connor, inhabits a more affluent world. David and Anne meet in 1952 at a local vacation spot and fall in love. But it is a platonic idyll: David is already engaged to Irene Hrudka. The novel is structured around David and Anne's initial separation and their encounters over the years. David goes into politics, Anne embarks on a career in TV journalism. Unfolding in high modernist mode, the novel intelligently depicts the squabbles of local celebrities and the self-consciousness of second-tier cities. Winegardner moves from real historyDlike the story of Louis Seltzer, the editor of the Cleveland Press who almost singlehandedly provoked the murder case against Sam SheppardDto fictitious episodes, like David's speech in favor of Carl Stokes, Cleveland's first black mayor. Cleveland may be on the decline in this urban portrait, but Winegardner (The Veracruz Blues) infuses his tale with an exhilarating energy. Like Jonathan Franzen in The Twenty-Seventh City, or E.L. Doctorow in City of God, Winegardner takes on the American metropolis, making Cleveland his own in plain, straightforward prose. (Jan.) Forecast: Sales of this book may initially be regional, but good word of mouth could excite interest among readers looking for a long, leisurely novel that focuses on a tantalizing slice of contemporary history. Enthusiastic blurbs by Jonathan Lethem and Robert Olen Butler will enhance sales.
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