Grit, Striving and Some Redemption Highlight Rust Belt Collection

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A Pittsburgher’s first reaction upon completing the 24 essays in “Voices from the Rust Belt” is bound to be: Jeez-​o-​man, we’ve got it pretty good here.

The tales of city woe here are datelined Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Youngstown… the usual suspects. But the value of “Voices from the Rust Belt” is not in helping Pittsburghers gloat about our eds-​and-​meds economy. The wide range of pieces creates a mosaic of the region that you’re unlikely to find in any other venue. The voices can be blunt, crabby or sappy; some are lyrical and evocative; others are wonky and earnest. All are honest and forthright. The publicity arms of tourism organizations may not embrace the book, but anyone who cares about this region — or America, for that matter — will.

The introduction by editor Anne Trubek indicates the integrity of what’s to follow. She’s the founder and director of Belt Publishing, which produces excellent work about the region, and gives a quick tutorial on the meaning of “Rust Belt.” (I didn’t know the term is derived from a line in a 1984 speech by Walter Mondale.) The geographic borders may be fuzzy — from Milwaukee to Buffalo? — but it encompasses “anywhere an economy was previously based on manufacturing and has since been losing population. … The phrase is born of loss, but has acquired texture, depth and decades’ worth of meaning.”

The two Pittsburgh writers in the collection, Dave Newman and Ben Gwin, turn in splendid and harrowing essays detached from the particulars of the city — hence, our lucky break in not being represented as a post-​industrial basket case. Newman’s “A Middle-​Aged Student’s Guide to Social Work” will resonate with anyone forced into midlife career change. When the gigs teaching creative writing dry up, Newman pursues a graduate degree in social work, which puts him on the front lines with victims of the new economy. How he suffuses the saddest stories with buoyant humor is a feat of magic. Gwin’s “Rust Belt Heroin Chic” is a wrenching five-​year chronicle of his wife’s addiction and the constant battle to care for their young daughter. The locales are McKees Rocks, Avalon and Bloomfield, but this chilling story could take place in Anywhere, USA.

Gwin’s wife finally gets clean, concluding the story on a ray of hope — a characteristic found throughout the collection. “Bathtime” by novelist Connor Coyne tells the story of the Flint, Mich., water crisis from an angle you’ve probably not observed. Coyne fled Chicago after 2008 for a better life in his Flint hometown, convincing his wife that they and their daughters would thrive. “I had never banked on the water going bad,” he says. Bathtime with 1-​year-​old Ruby is a danger-​filled event in keeping her from sipping the water. Yet they are not giving up on the city, just waiting for when “the last of the water has finally vanished down the drain.”

Aaron Foley’s “Can Detroit Save White People?” is one of several cantankerous pieces. The black Detroit native calls out the mini-​movement of white folks leaving settled places like Brooklyn for “adventure” in Detroit, like it’s “your personal safari.” He admits that “we could certainly use more (live) bodies here,” but just wishes that newcomers could “at least be up front with your intent, and not cover it up with this hippie malarkey about ‘finding yourself.’ ”

Meanwhile, in “Pretty Things to Hang on the Wall,” frustrated Cleveland artist Eric Anderson engages in open warfare with any artist who has moved to Cleveland to make art. “I want to spit in their faces,” he begins. “I want to do them grievous bodily harm.” Anderson had to make his living in the mills and practice art on the side. His screed builds toward a reasonable conclusion — “What bothers me is that I wasn’t smart enough to exploit the situation for myself” — and the bio indicates that he now owns a comic book store, so maybe he has found peace.

One of the collection’s best pieces hits closest to Pittsburgh: “Moundsville,” David Faulk’s reminiscence of his youth in the industrial West Virginia town on the Ohio River, “just a short barge and tugboat ride downstream from Pittsburgh.” In his mind, “to be working-​class in Moundsville was to be truly on the bottom of the slag heap of society,” he writes. It was “shunned by Pittsburghers and Clevelanders for its southernness, and by the rest of West Virginia for its sundry north-​of-​the-​Mason-​Dixon Catholicisms.” In the 19th century, the ill-​fated town passed over the chance to host the state university, and chose the state penitentiary instead. The town’s other claim to fame is right across the street: the Grave Creek Mound, an archeological remnant of the Adena mound-​building civilization.

Faulk spins an engaging tale of one night of “drinking cheap regional beer on the peak of this venerable structure” with his other honor-​student friends, concocting wild theories about the meaning of life and staring over the prison walls. “And now the civilization on this little speck of earth was falling apart. But the mound would remain. … Everything around us was changing except for the stars in the sky.” Such a cosmic meditation is a fitting description of the multitude found in “Voices from the Rust Belt.” Once down, but never out.

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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