Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Crooked River Burning

Crooked River Burning

3.5 4
by Mark Winegardner

See All Formats & Editions

The critically acclaimed novel of a compelling love affair and the decline of a once prosperous city .

The birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Cleveland was an economic powerhouse and America's sixth-largest city in the late 1940s. By 1969, it had dropped to twelfth. In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks, the


The critically acclaimed novel of a compelling love affair and the decline of a once prosperous city .

The birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Cleveland was an economic powerhouse and America's sixth-largest city in the late 1940s. By 1969, it had dropped to twelfth. In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks, the only way to make a living on his side of the city. Across the river is twelve-year-old Anne O'Connor, daughter of the reigning political boss of Cuyahoga County. In this richly entertaining novel, the two will meet and fall in love, and for twenty turbulent years, as Cleveland falls from grace, they will be consumed by a fiery, star-crossed romance. A natural-born storyteller, Mark Winegardner charts the demise of this fascinating city, artfully weaving in such real-life Clevelanders as Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, and Carl Stokes. A saga reminiscent of the best writing of E. L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, and John Dos Passos, Crooked River Burning is masterfully crafted and vastly entertaining-a great American novel in the truest sense.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Brilliant . . . What gives the book its edge is its setting: Cleveland. Winegardner weaves the love story through the fabric of a tumultuous era."
-the new york times book review
Dos Passos's classic trilogy U.S.A. now has a rival, in this richly plotted,
consistently engrossing big novel."-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Crooked River Burning brings Cleveland's past to life on both an intimate and a sweeping scale. . . . But [Winegardner's] main achievement is narrative voice . . . that's distinctly his own."-Los Angeles Times

Our Review
A River Runs Through It
Young lovers brought together -- and torn apart -- by the trinity of fate, class, and rock 'n' roll. The glory days attending one of the great rivalries in professional baseball. The inescapable politics of race, wealth, and division. Not one but two sensationally sordid murder mysteries. And Cleveland, Ohio's protracted downward spiral from the top tier of American cities to its status as the punch line of a national joke. Mark Winegardner's daring and expansive Crooked River Burning chronicles the decline and fall of a major metropolis in achingly human detail through its immense and diverse chorus of voices -- Catholic and Protestant, white and black, real and realistically imagined.

At the risk of alienating faint-hearted readers, it must be said that Crooked River Burning is nothing less than a tour de force, a stylistically complex novel that is also a compelling and immediately accessible page-turner. (Novelist Jonathan Lethem deserves most insightful jacket blurb honors for pegging Winegardner's approach as "slyly casual.") In addition to the variety of perspectives afforded by the use of multiple narrators, sporadic episodes delivered from the vantage point of authorial omniscience provide historical context and summary character development where more traditional exposition would have hobbled the pace. Cheerfully flaunting strict linearity, characters dead and buried at the end of one chapter are cheerfully resurrected to offer sage counsel in the next. Foreshadowing deliberately misdirects readers' expectations, yet at the same time rewards close reading. It is a testament to Winegardner's craftsmanship that bravura performances such as these not only appear natural and effortless but become eagerly anticipated cadenzas in the larger concerto of the novel.

The slender armature that supports all this high-falutin' literary architecture is, by comparison, the most simple of constructs: a love story. David Zielinsky and Anne O'Connor are Cleveland teenagers from families with considerably less in common than Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets -- polar opposites politically, socially, and geographically. But what they do share -- a time (the summer of '52), a place (a quaint island retreat on Lake Erie), an obsession with local DJ Alan Freed's newly christened rock 'n' roll, and an unquestioning faith in Cleveland's bright future and their own places in it -- quickly and predictably breaks down these traditional barriers. With the exception of touchstones necessitated by the historical record (the notorious murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, the 1954 World Series between the Indians and the Giants, the 1966 Hough race riots) this is the last such "predictable" event in the novel. In fact, the legerdemain with which Winegardner inextricably entwines David's and Anne's destinies with those of their fellow Clevelanders -- and, indeed, of Cleveland itself -- will leave many readers wondering whether the book's fictional elements are subtly influencing the factual record, or the other way around.

The two decades during which David and Anne pursue their adolescent dreams together and apart provide dozens of opportunities for Winegardner to explore topics ranging from the mechanics of ward politics to the malign influence of mob boss John Scalish to the storied reign of crusading newspaper editor Louis "Mr. Cleveland" Seltzer. And yet, even in the midst of this blizzard of Clevelandiana, the novel -- unlike the city itself -- never flags in its momentum or loses its sense of direction. Part ecstatic paean to Cleveland's golden age and part Rust Belt elegy, Mark Winegardner's Crooked River Burning is an unforgettable portrayal of a city, its people, and the indomitable will to endure.

--Greg Marrs

Brilliant . . . What gives the book its edge is its setting: Cleveland. Winegardner weaves the love story through the fabric of a tumultuous era.
New York Times Book Review
Brilliant . . . What gives the book its edge is its setting: Cleveland. Winegardner weaves the love story through the fabric of a tumultuous era.
Michael Harris
Crooked River Burning brings Cleveland's past to life on both an intimate and a sweeping scale. Winegardner describes weddings, funerals, dances, rallies, ball games, graduations, parties, elections, moments of domestic warmth and public violence with equal facility. But his main achievement is a narrative voice—not Doctorow's, not Tom Wolfe's (though Wolfe would surely applaud the documentary heft of this novel), but one that's distinctly his own.
Los Angeles Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Occasionally, a novel comes along that so exemplifies its setting that it sings like an anthem for that city or region. Such a book is Crooked River Burning. Certainly, it includes star-crossed lovers whose lives provide focus and move the action forward. But first and foremost, this is Cleveland's story, and Winegardner (The Veracruz Blues) paints the city with a bold brush. David Zielinsky and Anne O'Connor are from opposite side of the Cuyahoga River and hence from cultures as different as the ethnicities their names imply. Yet a teenage affair in 1952 binds them inextricably, even when their lives dictate separate paths. David's political ambitions and Anne's career as a television news anchor position them critically to live Cleveland history firsthand. Through their discerning eyes, the reader experiences the glory days of baseball with the Cleveland Indians, the birth of rock'n'roll with local DJ Alan Freed, the Sam Sheppard murder case, the 1960s race riots, the election of Cleveland's first black mayor, and the burning of the Cuyahoga River. This monumental tale of events great and small that together shaped the fabric of our society during the mid-20th century should not be missed. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/00.]--Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Peter Khoury
A bulky yet brilliant new novel...
New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

On a hot, gray Wednesday in July, David Zielinsky had finished mowing his lawn and the lawn of his father's house next door, and was putting away the mower when his uncle pulled into the drive in his week-old car, a yellow 1949 Willys Jeepster. It looked like the result of a night of gin-provoked coitus between a runtish moving van and a ragtop Studebaker and was, David thought, the worst match of car to driver ever to hit the American road. Uncle Stan had been a Chicago cop, the short young balding one in that famous picture placing the cuffs on Capone, then Eliot Ness brought him to Cleveland, then Stan went to war and did things that Aunt Betty said he couldn't talk about so don't ask, then he came home and opened a one-man detective business and accepted the obligation of raising his nephew, his wife's sister's half-orphaned kid. A man like this, David thought, should drive a four-door Ford.
"Shower up, ace." Despite the threat of lake-effect rain, Stan got out and began, with due American efficiency, to put down the car's cream-colored top. "I'm buying you lunch." Stan Lychak was the kind of man it was hard to question. David felt brave asking where.

"Downtown," said Stan. "We're meeting someone. Maybe get a haircut, too, if you get a move on." He stroked his neatly trimmed silver mustache, took off his hat and ran his hands over his friar's fringe of hair. "Both of us. I'll get you back here in plenty of time." By which he meant David's paper route, the afternoon Cleveland Press.
Downtown was eight miles away, but David had crossed the Cuyahoga River only for school field trips, Christmas shopping, or Indians games—never, as far as he can remember, in a car. The streetcar was how you went, when you went,which was seldom. "Where downtown?" David was, he knew, pushing his luck.
"Place on Short Vincent Street."
"Who are we meeting?" David asked, already sure.
"It's a surprise," Stan said, which, to David's mind, cinched it: they were going to see David's father, Mike, a Short Vincent regular, who every couple weeks swung by the house next door to get his mail or sleep one off. David hadn't spoken to him in months.
David had of course never been to Short Vincent Street. It wasn't a place you took a kid. Aunt Betty called hello. She was on the front porch, reading Beowulf (she'd been taking night-school classes for years, toward a degree in no one knew what). Stan smiled and went to kiss her. They chortled, like kids going steady.
Then Stan returned to his car. "You still here?"
"I am," David said. "Listen, you want me to move back over there?" He pointed to his father's house, where David had not lived since he was four, and his mother left for Hollywood and drowned soon thereafter, and to which he did not even have a key. "I will if you want."
"What?" Stan furrowed his brow, shook his head. "Where'd you come up with that? Did you think that was what I meant?"
"Maybe." No.
They regarded one another. David was an all-elbows beanpole in cutoffs and Keds. Stan was a compact, guarded man who hadn't wanted children and seemed never to have been one. Once, for a trip to Euclid Beach Park, Stan wore brogans and a fat tie.
"Well?" Stan resumed the ministrations needed to transform his nutty car. "Shake a leg."
On the drive up Pearl Road, Stan tuned in a broadcast of the Cleveland Orchestra. At each stoplight, he turned the radio down; as he got underway again, he'd turn it back up, overtaxing the tinny dashboard speaker. "Ah, Finlandia," he said. "By the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Pride of the Finns."
As if David cared.
"Born I believe in 1865," Stan said at the next light. "Still living. Sadly neglected these days."
"Yes," Stan insisted. "Great."
"Did I say he wasn't?" Yes. Though you had to be impressed by a guy who was practically a hundred years old.
The light at the west-side foot of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge turned green. Ramrod stiff behind the wheel, Stan adjusted his hat for the upcoming wind, put his car into gear, and began the slow ascent up the bridge and over the river.
Flanking the road, on each corner of the bridge, were mammoth sandstone pylons, each carved into the shape of an impassive art-deco angel, each clutching what looked like a large toy to its breast: the one on the left a stagecoach, on the right a car, what looked like a 1930 Dodge. Stan pointed and, over the scratchy music and howling wind, yelled. "The Guardians of Traffic!"
David felt a pressure on his chest, which might have just been the wind off the lake and down the Cuyahoga Valley but felt like more. Everything, everywhere, was large. The limitless lake shimmering in the haze to the north. Closer, on Whiskey Island, were mountains of gravel and salt, and those monster-movie-insect Huletts that loaded and unloaded the freighters. And to the right, to the south! As far as the eye can see stretched a crooked valley: a tenebrous wonderland carpeted with smokestacks and tank farms, drawbridges, ore trains, and every stippled color of smoke and fire you could
Will you look at all the bridges! A Tinkertoy exposition of drawbridges, cranking every whichway, spinning andlifting, rotating and tilting, pitching and yawing: right, left; up, down.
Halfway across the mile-long bridge, higher than the track where the streetcars go, with nothing above him but thesky, and, David threw back his head and gave himself over to the wind. Even the sky looked too large to fit where the sky used to go!
Uncle Stan, hat securely in place, tapped him on the arm and winked. "Nice view, eh?" DaBefore them loomed two more sandstone angels, the one on the left holding a steam engine, the one on the right a
dumptruck. Beyond the bridge was a hobbled mess of truck docks and sooty brick food warehouses, and beyond that: Terminal Tower! The tallest building in the world, if you don't count New York City, and let's not. Fifty-two craggy, greenish, wedding-cake stories, rising and tapering toward the turreted spire. On top, an American flag. Below that, a Cleveland Indians flag.
Could it be a mistake? Isn't this an off-day, the day after the All-Star game?
"Indians flag," shouted Uncle Stan, pointing. "They fly it any time the Indians're home."
"No fooling."
Only as they were about to reach the eastern side, as bridge became road, did David think to look back at the river they'd crossed: the Cuyahoga, clotted with black freighters, kinked as a great beast's spilled intestine, glowing green and yellow. It was a beautiful damn thing.
Stan pulled into a parking lot just as the sun broke out and the orchestra played the brassy last bars of Finlandia. He turned off the car, turned the key, and they sat listening to the applause. The radio went to commercial. All he said was "outstanding." All David could think to say was, "yeah." He asked if Stan wanted help putting the top up. Stan assessed the sky. "No," he said. "I'll risk it."
It was the day after the All-Star game. The Indians were in first. Cleveland was no one's idea of a joke. An ex-cop felt okay about leaving his new car unlocked. The sun shone.
At least until you turned the corner onto Short Vincent, that dark 485-foot-long glorified alley.
"I thought it'd be bigger," David said.
"That," said Stan, "is how it usually goes."
Doormen and bellboys milled around under the canopy of the alarmingly medium-sized Hollenden Hotel. The nightclubs were open, but the music wouldn't start for hours. Two main restaurants, Kornman's and the Theatrical were normal-sized, with nondescript facades. There were no elephants or famous movie stars or flagpole sitters or Presidential motorcades; nothing that local lore or David's father had led him to expect. Just a dark 485-foot one-way street, westbound.
Stan checked his watch. They were of course early. "In here." He held open the door to Ciccia's Barber Shop. "Let's get our ears lowered."
David and his uncle took the last two seats, underneath a cobwebby moosehead sporting an Indians cap (black, red bill, wishbone C, no Wahoo). On the television set was a floor-fight in Philly, over a civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform.
In the middle of a workday, Ciccia's was full of cigar smoke and men, and the talk was full of what you'd think. Baseball. Mock despair over women. Lies about fish. The skinny from the touts and sharps about today's sure things. The word on what's what in City Hall, who's bent and straight at the C.P.D. The things the Press, the News, and The Plain Dealer knew about but wouldn't print. Plus the guy in the next barber chair could be anybody. Bill Veeck, say.
"Mr. Veeck," said the barber. "You're next."
David, the only kid in the place, stared as the Indians' owner, a young, curly-haired, sunburned ex-Marine, grappled with his metal crutches—he had a wooden leg—and, still chuckling over one of his own jokes, climbed into the chair. In 1948, to own the Indians was to own Cleveland. Give a snakeoil salesman single-malt to sell instead, and, as David's father would say, the world lines up to suck his dick.
"What about it, Billy?" called a monstrously fat man in a derby. "How long can it last?"
Already, David was thinking how he'd tell the story to his buddies in Old Brooklyn. He reached into his pocket, but there's nothing for Veeck to sign. Just some change and a comb.
"Should be a hell of a race," said Veeck. "Come out and see. Bring your wives."
"Shoes ain't got a wife," somebody said.
"Don't need one," said Shoes. "I got yours."
There was talk of who might catch Cleveland—the A's, the Red Sox, the evil Yankees. Someone asked Veeck about the Satchel Paige stunt.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Mark Winegardner, published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Lethem
Wise, generous and slyly casual, Mark Winegardner's masterpiece of pure storytelling carves into the territory of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. It's Everything You (N)Ever Wanted to Know About Cleveland But Couldn't Guess Would Break Your Heart. It's a book to love.
Stewart O'Nan
Playful and vivid, Crooked River Burning is a crafty mix of the real and imaginary. In his patient laying out of the mysteries of Cleveland, Mark Winegardner shows not just a fleeting nostalgia for his city, but true love.
Robert Olen Butler
If Dublin can become the whole world in all its complexity, then so can Cleveland -- at least in the hands of Mark Winegardner, who has created, in Crooked River Burning, a remarkable novel giving this profoundly human city the transcendent radiance of art. This is a major work from one of our finest writers.

Meet the Author

Mark Winegardner is the author of the novel The Veracruz Blues and three books of nonfiction. A regular contributor to GQ, he has also published work in the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Esquire, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Doubletake, and other magazines. He is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Brief Biography

Tallahassee, Florida
Date of Birth:
November 24, 1961
Place of Birth:
Bryan, Ohio
B.A., Miami University, 1983; M.F.A., George Mason University, 1987

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Crooked River Burning 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a Clevelander, so a little biased, but this book is fantastic. The mix of history and a well-written love star-crossed love story set to the backdrop if Cleveland in its heyday is one of my favorite books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I met Cleveland a few years ago while visiting my wife's family. This book has peeled back the layers of the history of the city and helped me to enjoy it as if I had been there all my life. What a page turner!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book brought me back to the NE Ohio I grew up in. It has everything- The Cleveland Indians, Union and Politics, and persons from the right and wrong side of the tracks. I lost track of time reading this one.