As a lifelong Rust Belter, I'm wary of statements made about the Rust Belt, the Midwest and (worst of all) the "Heartland." More often than not they're attempts to sell something, be it political candidate or truck.
Former Chicagoan Mark Athitakis (and frequent book critic for the Star Tribune) appears to share my wariness but has not yet given up on finding value in the concept of Midwesternness, at least when it comes to fiction. His succinct book "The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt" explores both the mythology about the region ("homey, religious, self-reliant, and white as possible") as well as how contemporary fiction writers subvert, exploit and explode that mythology. His book grew out of his "Reading the Midwest" column for Belt Magazine.
At a minimum, "The New Midwest" is a crisp, engaging tip sheet and guide for further reading. Athitakis champions some lesser-known writers, including Rachel Louise Snyder ("What We've Lost Is Nothing") and Patrick Michael Finn ("From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet"). In a chapter titled "The Great American / Midwestern Novel," he makes an extended case for the late Leon Forrest's gigantic "Divine Days" (1992), set largely on Chicago's South Side. "And not just a Great American Novel — a great Chicago novel, a great Great Migration novel, a great coming of age novel, a spiritual novel, an experimental novel, a music novel, a comic novel, and much more besides," he writes.
Like a shrewd fusion chef, in thematic chapters Athitakis groups together unexpected clusters of novels, revealing affinities and common ground where I would not have looked for them. For example, in "Is This Heaven?" he considers four authors working faith-based territory, defining religious very broadly: Marilynne Robinson, for her trilogy of "Gilead," "Home" and "Lila"; J.F. Powers, for "Morte d'Urban," his comic novel about a Chicago priest exiled to rural Minnesota; the atheist Thomas F. Disch, for his sci-fi novel "On Wings of Song"; and the late David Foster Wallace, whose novel "The Pale King" is analyzed as a conversion story. None of these books fit the bland stereotype of Midwestern piety, but all grapple seriously with religious themes.
The broad-minded Athitakis finds merit and complexity in works a more narrowly traditional literary critic might not have included here, notably Chris Ware's graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" and Gillian Flynn's pre-"Gone Girl" novels.
As a card-carrying Wisconsin journalist, of course I'm going to mine his book for local angles. No single book makes Athitakis' case against the "homey" Midwest as forcefully as Michael Lesy's landmark assemblage "Wisconsin Death Trip" (1973), which pairs late 19th-century photographs taken around Black River Falls with "news items about murder, suicide, fraud, arson, disease, poisonings, and other somber goings-on in the quiet territory between Milwaukee and Minneapolis." Any reporter who's ever covered Wisconsin knows this territory is never quiet.
Athitakis sees Lesy's distinctive book as the godfather of both Robert Goolrick's novel "A Reliable Wife" and Stewart O'Nan's "A Prayer for the Dying."
He cites "Little House in the Big Woods" (set outside Pepin) and Laura Ingalls Wilder's ensuing novels as the books that underscore the notion of "hard work as the root of Midwestern life" — a precept many of his other picks challenge. Also, Athitakis praises Green Bay native Patrick Somerville's "This Bright River," a novel of an adult brother and sister returning to their small Wisconsin hometown.
Athitakis declares his book the start, not the end, of a conversation, so I'll jump in to make my points. Jane Hamilton's "The Excellent Lombards" fits perfectly here — a comic coming-of-age story about a Wisconsin farm girl that also depicts the forces eroding family farms. South African novelist Lauren Beukes' "Broken Monsters" embodies the competing myths Athatakis discusses of Detroit as ruin and Detroit as phoenix.
A couple of passing gaffes made me pause: Former poet laureate Philip Levine is misidentified as David, and it's five girls who die in "The Virgin Suicides," not three. These quibbles don't stop me from recommending "The New Midwest" for anyone interested in fiction about our region. Give Gillian Flynn the final word here, as quoted in a 2012 Chicago Tribune interview: "I'm very stubborn about the Midwest. To me it's great, underexplored literary terrain that's fun to roam around in."
Jim Higgins is an assistant entertainment and features editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.