Crazy Ode to Cleveland|
Crooked River Burning. By Mark Winegardner. New York: Harcourt Inc. 2001. 561 pages. Cloth, $27.00.
Visit Cleveland on your own and you might miss a good bit of it. Without a knowledgeable guide, you might never really delve into its deep rock-and-roll roots. Fortunately, Mark Winegardner is on hand to show you around. His second novel is a big book on Cleveland and all its characters great and small.
Crooked River Burning recounts most of the lives of the fictional, finely drawn David Zielinski, Anne O'Connor, their big-shot fathers and a host of the city's citizens across every conceivable social and economic strata. Winegardner's good-natured, jokey, omniscient narrator brings us along to watch on the summer night that David and Anne meet, flirting over table tennis and then spending the next few decades coming apart and back together again, usually by way of some local sporting event.
She's a privileged red-haired beauty, the daughter of a local politician and his miserable, melodramatic wife. He's an idealistic erstwhile politician who marries his slightly dowdy high-school sweetheart. They share a borderline-obsessive love of the Cleveland Indians and rock-and-roll music; their families drive each of them crazy in various ways. Peppered among their exploits are those of legendary music promoter Alan Freed, Cleveland native Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who is (fictionally) chronicled in what must be one of his first-recorded screams in front of a live audience, plus a host of colorful figures from baseball, music, journalism and local politics.
Many strands of story are here, woven together by a narrator who sounds like he's presiding over beers among friends at an inviting corner bar on the down-scale west side. The book's dust jacket accolades compare Wine-gardner to Don DeLillo, king of the odes. But where DeLillo's readers often feel alone without a road map, Winegardner stays with you the whole way, pointing up the pitfalls and highlighting the fun spots, making for a much better visit.
The House of Blue Light. by David Kirby. 77 pages. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, $14.95.
Miss Molly rocks in The House of Blue Light, and so will any reader who enters David Kirby's world in this rollicking collection of poetry. These lines from the title poem serve as an apt description of this new offering by Florida State's W. Guy McKenzie Professor of English: " . . . a fun house,/ a good-time house, yet a house where/ the unexpected occurs . . ."
To read any of the poems in this collection is to find yourself in the company of a fine companion—a convivial storyteller, stand-up comic, and wry observer of the human condition. A glance at the table of contents tells you to expect the unexpected, with titles such as "Catholic Teenager from Hell Goes to Italy," "Roman Polanski's Cookies," and "Moderation Kills (Excusez-Moi, Je Suis Sick as a Dog)."
These are poems in which the narrator, at age eight, asks his mom to play strip poker, where Ray Charles drives himself to the club where he's playing, and where the writer wanders onto a film site and invites the ire of Roman Polanski by wolfing down handfuls of the director's chocolate-covered graham crackers.
Perhaps Kirby's most impressive talents are his inventiveness and how smoothly he interconnects the personal (seen, of course, through the filter of imagination) with the historical, cultural and literary. "A Little Cough Syrup" is surely the only poem in the English language that includes references to Emperor Sigismund of Rome, Freddie "Boom Boom" Cannon, and Shakespeare's Caliban.
Joy, insight and wisdom abound in these poems, the strongest from Kirby's corner yet.
Econ of the Absurd
Black Box, Inc. By Ray Canterbery. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com. 2000. 272 pages. Paper, $13.95.
For those of us dying to know what it would be like to get inebriated and jabber about economics, Black Box, Inc. , the first novel by FSU economist Ray Canterbery, provides a strong hint. Reading this hilarious satirical take on not only numbers but also politics, physics, love and God is a little like being at an office party and having something fizzy slipped into your drink. Everything's off kilter and before you know it you're running into walls.
Crude State University Economics Professor James Connery (oft-mistaken for Sean) works as a presidential adviser to the increasingly right-wing U.S. president. In the next 200-plus pages, he meets and falls for the lovely Daisy Zirconi, who gets turned on reading the Declaration of Independence. He dies, meets God, and returns to life, but not before also meeting John F. Kennedy and asking him what he thought of Connery's latest book on JFK's economic programs and realizing that, in Heaven, everyone is a liberal.
Puns and innuendo stalk this book, popping out from around the corners on every few pages. The book's big software manufacturer is Macrohard and its toy store is Toys R WeWe, and there is more than one reference to Capitol domes as looking a lot like a celebrated part of the female anatomy.
Box is published by the Internet publishing concern iUniverse.com, so you might not be able to find it—or anything remotely like it—in the local book superstore. But it's definitely worth the search, just to see where it takes you.
Hombre on the Street
Grassroots Expectations of Democracy and Economy. By Nancy Powers. 2001, University of Pittsburgh Press. Paper, 294 pages.
Nancy Powers' new book is a breath of fresh air for all those with the sneaking suspicion that polls—used just about every three minutes in the U.S.—are a pretty ham handed way of finding out how people feel about politics. In her in-depth examination of how Argentines feel about democracy in their own country, Powers, a political scientist, gives us what's too often missing from decades of U.S. political writing: actual peoples' actual opinions.
In 1983, Raúl Alfonsín won support from Argentina's poor electorate, saying, "with democracy, people eat." But inflation went crazy under his watch, and people didn't have all that much more on the table then they did under pre-Alfonsín military rule. Then in 1989 they elected Carlos Menem, who promised salariazo (huge pay raises) for everybody. Menem curbed inflation, but the pay raises never came through, and the unemployment rate soared to its highest in Argentina's history. Yet he was re-elected. Taken with Argentina since she first visited Còrdoba in 1978, Powers wondered why. "If people did not expect democracy to feed them," she writes, "what did they expect of it?"
Powers' research points up a populace with a thorough comprehension of their political history and a good grasp of the concept of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Some of them even show a decidedly non-American understanding of the difficulty any president has keeping his campaign promises in a touchy economic situation. For an academic book, Grassroots Expectations is both readable and personal, an inside look at Argentina sans spin doctoring.