What we feel about ourselves is more important in many ways than what we know about ourselves, whether in projections of how we wish others to see us despite all obvious appearances or in frustrations in how others fail to truly see what's beyond the surface. The stakes are even higher when you're talking about not just people but cities, and not just moments but history.
Those tussles are at the heart of "Cuyahoga," the debut novel from Cleveland native Pete Beatty out today from Scribner that is a rollicking, inventive, satirical twist on fables and tall tales, an origin story of origin stories set in early 1800s Northeast Ohio on the eve of the marriage between Cleveland and Ohio City.
Your guide on the adventure is Medium Son (Meed), a young resident of the ramshackle, frontier town of Ohio City whose older brother, Big Son, is the spirit of the times. In the vein of Johnny Appleseed, Big Son "had rastled rivers and lakes and rescued women in woe. Met the devil twice and whipped him three times. Ate panther fricassee for breakfast and tiger steaks at supper. Taught wolves how to wail and put a face on the moon with a rusty musket. Big Son has done more feats tan you have brains to hold etc."
Big had nearly single-handedly created Ohio City, but Cleveland stood across the river, larger, wealthier and more powerful. And for all of Big's good works, he'd received much adoration but "little in the way of government dollars."
With an engrossing style of prose and humor that critics have compared to John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Charles Portis, Beatty spins the yarn from there: Cleveland wants a bridge over the Cuyahoga, but Ohio City fears it'll be squashed in the deal, forced from little sister status to something even lowlier. And Big, falling for the lovely Cloe, seeks to pivot from his work of feats to regular pay and status to win her heart.
"For his next one he liked something else entirely. No brawling or biting, and no empty palms after. For his next wonder Big wished to grab hold of the land as he had watched men do. To make a place of his own and populate it with shining-haired small fry. To quit being wondered at and start wondering on. To quit being loved up and start loving.
"He wanted to be more flesh than spirit."
In that pursuit readers are treated to a tale of jealousy and nativism in 1837 populated by a rag-tag cast of slapstick Deadwood-ian characters navigating their own personal and collective troubles.
Progress is the name of the game — "Rivers are meant to be crossed" — and with the two sides pitted against each other, Medium Son chronicles his brother's many feats while rastling in his own heart between his love for his brother, his own growing feelings for Cloe, and his desire to be more spirit than flesh.
As the L.A. Times wrote in its review of the book: "Who made America? Men made America. Big men. Men like Pecos Bill, who could tame a mountain lion and make a lasso out of a rattlesnake. Or Paul Bunyan, who felled entire forests with one mighty swing of his ax and carved the Grand Canyon by dragging his giant pick behind him. Needless to say it’s false. Folklore, fakelore, tall tales. Not just the literal facts but the Great Man spirit of Manifest Destiny. And yet America has never quite shaken its admiration for stories about manly men with the power to conquer and tame a lawless land."
Beatty delivers a tender, funny corrective to those stories through the Sons and everyone around them, very few of whom seem to have any idea why they do things until finding a justification afterward, and many of whom, like the simple but observant narrator Medium Son, wrestle with the fables that have been delivered to them — from their neighbors, from the Bible, and from the story of America — while creating their own.
"If you only known this country by our decorations you would expect we had eagles falling out of every branch — kept as pets — dined on their eggs all week and their meat on Sundays," Medium Son says. "In Ohio the only eagles we seen were in the distance and making in the other direction. There were a justice to the national symbol always absconding."
Beyond land disputes and familial ties, "Cuyahoga" also sets its sites, ever lightly but adeptly, on the environment, as the New York Times points out in its review.
Big scolds his early nemesis Lake Eerie about the “inevitability of white folks.” The Lake can “blow and bite all you wanted but we are here for eternity and you ought to go along like a fellow,” he says just before “man and water brawled for a fortnight.”And if you ever wondered how the Cuyahoga River really first caught on fire?
This battle is only resolved when Big makes a deal with the Devil, who is “not a scarlet-skinned demon dripping with fiery snots, but a white man aged about 50 years.” The Devil is all for it: “I back the United States all day long,” he tells Big. “I back progress every time. I am for democracy, for whatever keeps you all busy and growing.”
Well, "Cuyahoga" has that too, and it's better than the version you know.