Does anybody know of a cure for Rust Belt punditry fatigue? Asking for a nation of readers.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, these are good times for stories about semirural bad times. Op-ed pages and political magazines overflow with personal commentaries about the region’s decline. Explanations abound for why good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth laborers decided to throw their political lot with billionaires eager to take scissors to the social safety net. Do you hail from one of the economic craters of the exurban Midwest and Appalachia, possess a college degree, and have a socio-politico-economic theory to sling? The media wants to hear from you.
At the center of this newly minted chattering class is J.D. Vance, whose inescapable 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” delivers a likable story about Vance’s triumph over his hardscrabble upbringing with the help of gumption and familial lovingkindness. Alas, Vance also staples some questionable policy prescriptions for improving the former industrial Midwest — basically, gumption and familial lovingkindness. But regardless of Vance’s personal experiences and politics, the success of his book established a uniform — and lamentable — tone for how the region is written about: dry, somber, earnest, wonkish. That “elegy” in the title does a whole lot of emotional load-bearing. It commands: Don’t dare crack a smile when you’re talking about this place.
Robin Yocum’s fourth novel, the crime story “A Welcome Murder,” isn’t a cure-all for the problems with today’s Rust Belt rhetoric. It’s got its imperfections; his plotting can be as wobbly as Vance’s politics. But it also has a wit and quirkiness that serve as reminders that the region isn’t so sacred that you can’t bring a little humor to it.
Like Vance, Yocum has a love-hate relationship with the Ohio River Valley town where he grew up, and which took it in the teeth once the steel and mining industries disappeared. “A Welcome Murder” is set in Yocum’s home town of Steubenville, a southeastern Ohio burg that’s gone adrift. Early on, Yocum writes of the place: “Its old homes, built into the steep hillsides at a time when the town boomed and steel and coal were twin kings, now sag against their own weight, stripped by the acrid smoke and bleached by years of neglect.”
So far, so dutifully elegiac. But Yocum constructs a madcap yarn around this epicenter of economic depression, shifting narrators across a handful of quirky, hard-bitten residents. Johnny Earl is a former major league baseball prospect with “the morals of an alligator” who hit the skids and did a prison stint after lapsing into the region’s remaining thriving business: drug-dealing. Sheriff Francis Roberson is a Minnesota transplant who spends his days “dealing with idiots with beer on their breath and vomit on their shoes” but has serious ambitions to be president. (Ohio has produced seven of them, after all.) His wife, Allison, resents being transplanted into “the lyrics of a bad country song.” The local milquetoast can’t shake off his distasteful nickname, “Smoochie.” His wife devotes what free time she’s not spending on cuckolding her husband into nursing outsize irrational rages. (“If water were hate, I’d be the Pacific Ocean.”)
The plot turns on the murder of an arrogant reprobate who’s done enough to offend so many people in town that just about everybody who remains is a suspect. Yocum can be precious and a little goofball in assembling the requisite twists and color around that story: Character names suggest a Southern-fried Pynchon (Elvis Norwine, Toots Majowski, Beaumont T. Bonecutter); hardcore neo-Nazis show up to twist arms; and Smoochie unconvincingly uses his role as a suspect to develop a long-absent backbone.
But even amid the silliness, Yocum, a former investigative reporter in the region, has a keen, irreverent eye for detail about how a place like Steubenville is flailing — and, not unimportantly, doesn’t exactly deserve its role as a symbol of American goodness brought to heel. From Yocum’s perspective, the region didn’t acquire vices in the wake of manufacturing’s decline; new vices just arrived to replace the mob-managed gambling and prostitution rackets. And no matter the vice, it’s a place where the cops stayed bought off: “To offset their lost gambling and prostitution revenue streams, lawmen began accepting payoffs from small-time drug dealers.”
The former ballplayer, desperate to “put the Ohio River Valley in my rearview mirror,” serves as Yocum’s straight-talking Rust Belt oracle. Which is to say he has an unromantic point of view of how downtrodden the place is. He’d rather stay in jail as a suspect than deal with malevolent racists, girlfriend drama and getting his act together. But the place has a pull on him, too. He delivers his laments with a side of self-deprecating humor: “No matter what I do with the rest of my life, people are going to walk through the halls of the high school, point to my photo, and say, ‘Hell of an athlete, but dumber than a post hole.’ ”
There’s no one right way to write about a place. Just look at southern Ohio alone, which has provided the setting for fiction that’s violent (Donald Ray Pollock), operatic (C.E. Morgan), experimental (William H. Gass) and lyrical (Toni Morrison). For now, the institutional voice of the region may belong to J.D. Vance, which fits a larger narrative about political resentment and up-by-one’s-bootstraps redemption. But it’s a place that has plenty of room for Yocum’s brand of serio-gonzo storytelling as well.
Mark Athitakis is a critic and author of “The New Midwest,” a critical study of the region’s fiction.
By Robin Yocum
Seventh Street. 280 pp. Paperback, $15.95