Dean Bakopoulos's debut novel, Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, starts off on a surreal note. In the opening chapter, the author describes a Blue-collar neighborhood in Detroit where the fathers of the community start disappearing, many using the phrase "I've gone to the moon" to make their escape.
After this first chapter, however, this novel drifts away from the surrealism and moves into the gritty world of the unemployed Rust Belt where mothers are forced to take on the roles of the vanished fathers and young men are forced to contemplate their own roles in a world that is no longer defined by the traditional ideas of work and family. As an avid reader of Rust Belt literature (if that really is a subgenre of literature), I know it's hard for a writer to tackle the subject of Blue Collar life in an unique way; yet I found Bakopoulos's novel an interesting coming-of-age story about the working class world in America.
In this book, the reader meets Michael and his friends, all who are trying to learn how to navigate their fatherless world. The book starts with an almost nostalgic tone concerning the missing fathers as explained by Michael himself: "What I missed most was the collective drone of our fathers' lives, their big and clumsy presence. I even missed their cussing and their labored breathing from too many cigarettes." Soon, however, the missing fathers become mere ghosts, as the boys finish high school, find jobs, get married, and have children of their own. Throughout their lives, they fight to stay away from their own fathers' legacy of disappearance and abandonment.
Please Don't Come Back From the Moon is one of those books (published quite a few years ago) that I somehow missed, so I'm glad I found it now. More information about this novel (and Bakopoulos's new book) can be found on the author's website.
Set in Flint, Michigan, Buick City, a book of prose poems by Sarah Carson, explores the landscape and people of a dying Rust Belt City. Certainly, a reader diving into the pages of Carson's newest collection may expect the rust and dust of a city that is fading from the American landscape, yet, physical landscape is not the most important aspect of Buick City. Instead, we get a frank look of the lives navigating a rough, and in some ways, bleak, world around them.
Buick City opens with a poem titled, "The Beginning" with a clear description of how lives are intertwined with setting of this book. We see an Avon lady hanging "Shiny magazines on the "bent steel poles of mailboxes." We see the prostitutes who follow her, stealing the Avon pamphlets, "looking for ideas." We also see Rasta kings who "sell cigarettes, area rugs, handbags out of their camper van." In the background, a train shakes their world, rattling "dogs awake in ditches," shaking "windowsills full of spider plants," and turning on "touch lamps in the faces of sleeping children."
From this poem on, Carson's collection looks at the lives of people who navigate this landscape. The book intertwines a loose coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator with other people who float in and out of her life. We are introduced to this narrator in the poem, "On TV the Boy Killer Wears My Same Sweater" where she explains that for several years she wanted to be a boy and that her father blamed her mother: "She's the one who let me play with cap guns. She's the one who let me wear the Ninja Turtle sweater to school day after day." As readers, we follow this narrator as she grows to adulthood, chucking rocks at police cars, witnessing her parents divorce, falling in and out of love. Landscape plays an important part in all of these stories. For instance, in "The Half Trailer" the narrator introduces us to her neighbor by what she can hear and smell through the thin walls of her mobile home: "That night I came home from work and stayed awake for hours listening to the movies he was watching, full of explosions and gunfire, underscored by the gentle rumble of his smoker's cough, the flick of his lighter, the sweet smell of his fat girlfriend's Family Dollar perfume."
Around this loose narrative arc, the reader is introduced to a variety of people. In one poem, "The Building" we are introduced to a lonely girl who leaves a note for the mailman that he will never read. In another poem, "Demolition Derby at the Fairgrounds" we learn about a man arrives home from a night out to dogs that are "disappointed to find that he's the first one home." And in a mini-series of poems about a 24 hour grocery store, we are introduced to a cast of characters that are struggling to survive both jobs and home life.
In spite of the grim details, and often times grim outlooks of her characters' lives, Carson also provides humor and hope in her poems. As I was reading through these prose poems, I couldn't help but compare her work to the fictional stories of Raymond Carver. Yet, while the people may be similar to the characters found in Carver's works, Carson often goes beyond the minimalistic techniques made popular by Carver. Indeed, after finishing Buick City, I found myself thinking about the wind on my face as a train rambles by or the strange smells of grocery stories or warehouses.
In a recent issue of Belt Magazine, Sarah Carson gave a great interview where she discusses Buick City. You can read her interview here. You can also visit her website.
Of course, someone like me, who was born and raised in the Rust Belt, currently lives in the Rust Belt, and writes about the Rust Belt would instantly pick up Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman. Waldman's debut book is really a collection of essays all concerning, yep, you guessed it, rust. For most readers, this would not be the most interesting subject, but through strong narrative navigation of both history and science, Waldman tells the story of an element that "is costlier than all other natural disasters combined."
Rust is bookend by two chapters that explore the way that we discovered that the Statue of Liberty was rusting apart. In between these two chapters are other essays that explore the influence that rust has had on history. Many subjects are explored including the life of Harry Brearley, who is credited with inventing stainless steel; issues regarding the upkeep of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System which covers over 100 miles; and the day-to-day products of dealing with rust that can be found at the local Home Depot. Still, my favorite subject is the chapter titled "Indiana Jane" where Waldman introduces the reader to Alyssha Eve Csuk, who photographs rust, and in particular spends a lot of time finding the beauty is such places as Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
In her back cover blurb, Mary Roach (one of my favorite authors), says this about Rust: "The clarity and quiet wit of Waldman's prose, his gift for narrative, his zeal for reporting, and his eye for detail -- these things and more put him in a class with John McPhee and Susan Orlean." I agree. But I also would place Rust in the category of books that bring to life the history of one element, whether that element is an animal, a place, or even a mineral. It's very easy to compare Rust to some of my other favorites including Diamond by Matthew Hart and Cod by Mark Kurlansky.
Still, Rust is not one of those books that "reads" like a novel. Instead, it's a book that should be read slowly -- both to digest the content and enjoy the prose. Certainly, I walked away from this work knowing a little bit more about the corrosion that covers old bait buckets, the hubcaps of my car, the guardrails, even the old tankers located in the railroad yard just a few blocks from where I live. In short, I know a little more about the world where I live.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.