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From Barnes & NobleOur 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.