A Common Condition: What Midwestern Novels Tell Us about 2016

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Years, like novels, are false constructs. But years, like novels, can sometimes provide a useful shape to our collective anxieties, help our abstractions become tangible and comprehensible. Two thousand sixteen has been an especially resonant case in point. People spoke about this year as if it were a malevolent beast, determined to rob us of our most venerated talents (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen), replace them with a society-wide race to the bottom (the presidential campaign), provide regular reminders of our capacity for cruelty (Aleppo, Orlando), and, like a jailer aware of its power, occasionally throw us a bone (your World Champion Chicago Cubs).

No coherent work of fiction could fully encompass this range of farces, comedies, and tragedies; even the inevitable nonfiction chronicle of the past year will undoubtedly miss something. But, as 2016 slowly but steadily turned into a date that’s likely to have history-book resonance, my fiction reading became more valuable and alive to the times than I — and perhaps the novelists — anticipated. As the long and deep reach of American racism became re-exposed, there was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Nathan Hill’s The Nix evoked the slow-motion dilapidation of its political and media institutions. Karan Mahajan’s debut novel, The Association of Small Bombs, explored the horrors of global terrorism and the perversions of religion that stoke it. We lacked a high-profile social novel this year, but you could construct a decent one out of parts.

Because this was the year I wrote a book about contemporary fiction set in the Midwest, a lot of my reading and thinking about fiction in 2016 gravitated toward the region. And as the region demonstrated its shift from blue to red, people seemed to find a new interest in the Midwest and the Rust Belt. What’s the matter with Kansas? And Iowa, and Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Ohio, and Pennsylvania?

Short answer: I don’t know, not for certain. All the think-tanked rationales feel incomplete. But as the center started to stop holding, I was particularly grateful for books set in the Midwest that spoke to that incompletion, that messiness. In that regard, no novel better captured the collective bad mood better than David Means’s debut novel, Hystopia. It’s set in an alternative-reality 1970, where much of Michigan is in flames from rioting during a Summer of Hate. JFK has escaped assassination but Vietnam has become an even uglier quagmire. Returned soldiers are prescribed Tripizoid, a horse sedative that’s doing double duty as a memory eraser, but the drugs aren’t working so well, and old angers are resurfacing. The book is then, except now.

One character summarizes the novel’s dilemma thusly: “You feel good and clean with the trauma put away, but at the same time you want to know what really happened.” Vietnam vets came from everywhere, of course, but there’s something potent about Means setting the story in Michigan, where the manufacturing industry is drifting into decline and turning lots of its sons into cannon fodder. We learn early on that the novel-within-a-novel was written by a Michigander who suffered from something called Stiller’s disease, whose symptoms include an urge to hole up, retreat. It is, Means writes, “a common condition in the Middle West of the United States.”

Donald Ray Pollock’s second novel, The Heavenly Table, delivers the bad news from even further back: It’s a black comedy about the mucky confluence of the social forces shaping the Midwest 100 years ago. Set in southern Ohio during the end of World War I, the novel largely turns on the arrival there of a three brothers from the South who make up a deadly if clumsy band of robbers. Their arrival sets in motion a series of commentaries about war, religion, education, sexuality, and race — and rarely do any of these cases wind up being a positive in terms of human dignity. But everybody is grimly dug in to their positions. A farmer at the center of the story riffs early on about being proud of ignorance: “They would stick their noses in a book and then all of a sudden Ross County, Ohio, wasn’t good enough for them. The next thing you knew they either got caught up in some perversions . . . or they lit out for some big city like Dayton or Toledo, in search of their ‘destiny.’ ”

There’s no reward in Pollock’s world for trying to rise above your station; indeed, the band of violent brothers become folk heroes for their efforts. “It made no sense, the way Americans sometimes went bananas over certain people for absolutely no reason, as if they were just drawing names out of a hat.” The brothers want to go to Canada, but Ohio is the place where their ambitions got stuck.

The Heavenly Table presents its Midwest as a site of violent resentment. C. E. Morgan, in her superb novel The Sport of Kings, recognizes the resentment, but with the seriousness, heft, and orderliness of an old-fashioned work of moral realism, like Dreiser transplanted to the Ohio River. On the Kentucky side are the Forges, a long-established white family that invested first in bourbon and then in racehorses, but always in white supremacy; in Cincinnati is Allmon, the black ex-felon who becomes the groom for Hellsmouth, a prize thoroughbred with Secretariat in her bloodline, ready to take on the Kentucky Derby. That’s a success story for Allmon, but only to a point: He’s growing up on “the new plantation,” as Allmon’s grandfather puts it, and much of The Sport of Kings focuses on the long reach of Jim Crow, where abuses are heaped on in the name of twisted ideas about genetics and curdled notions of “tradition.”

The plot of Morgan’s novel would make for a pretty good opera or Greek tragedy, and the novel demonstrates her grasp of its themes: forbidden love, fire, fate, bloodlines, death as retribution. (The horse at its center is named Hellsmouth, after all.) But its heart is in its very American understanding, one inherited from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, that the supposed border that the Ohio River represents, the line between the slave South and free North, was always a blur. Allmon is taunted late in the novel by Hellsmouth’s jockey, Reuben, when Allmon tells him he hails from Cincinnati:

“Of course!” the jock said. “I can hear the river in your mouth! It sounds just like the South.”

“Cincinnati ain’t the South,” Allmon said briskly.

Reuben returned upright on his slip of a saddle and cackled to the crowd. “Not the South, folks! Not the South!” A slicing glance: “It’s all the South, son.”

The Sport of Kings catches you short in a thousand ways, and one of them is that “slicing glance” — it sells the notion that when Reuben says all, he means not just the Ohio River valley but America. Perhaps more than America.

All three of these books largely take place a fair distance from the present day. They are not about frustration of the laid-off Kalamazoo laborer or the guy in southern Indiana with a Dixie flag on his truck. Our Great American Trump Novel will take a while to arrive. But our novelists aren’t retreating so much as reckoning, looking into the past for the messages, stories, and symbols that were true then and are relevant now. In the years to come journalists with have their hands full finding the shape of what’s happening in the present, and they deserve our gratitude for their efforts. But I’m equally grateful for the novelists who are doing the necessary digging into what’s brought us here.