Apocalypse Pittsburgh

Thomas Sweterlitsch creates a grim, fascinating tale in “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”
Stacy Innerst Apocalypse Pittsburgh
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Pittsburghers have long boasted that, in the heat of the Cold War, our role as an industrial power made us the Russians’ No. 1 nuclear target. It was a counterweight to our role as a national punchline for being a sooty dump.

Thomas Sweterlitsch is not a Pittsburgh native, but he must have absorbed this folklore after attending Carnegie Mellon to study literary theory and putting down roots in the East End. His debut novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow” (Putnam, $26.95)—a rip-​roaring combination of highbrow science fiction, unspeakable violence and tortured love story — imagines a world in which Pittsburgh’s paradoxical ego boost has been fulfilled.

On top of letting us revel in the prestige of nuclear annihilation, he pays homage to another bedrock Pittsburgh characteristic: We like to reminisce about “where things used to be.” In this story, all of Pittsburgh “used to be.”

But there’s one benefit in the savage mid-​21st century future of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow:” The surveillance state that we grouse about today has become so pervasive that everything is recorded, via the blanket of security and traffic cameras and “retinal cams” in everyone’s eyeballs, and stored in the vast Archive. Through “Adware” — something like an evolved Google Glass, but surgically implanted in the brain — people can seamlessly navigate the virtual world, which is convenient, even if your consciousness is bombarded with sales pitches tailored to your inner thoughts. Tap into Three Rivers Net, however, and you can be dining at Spice Island Tea House in Oakland, popping into Coca Café in Lawrenceville, or checking out Big Jim’s in Greenfield.

The main character, widower John Dominic Blaxton, does all of the above, and more.

But he often visits the final footage from Downtown’s Katz Plaza, “centered by a Louise Bourgeois sculpture and benches shaped like laconic, watchful eyes.” He joins other Pittsburgh mourners to watch a man climb out of a truck holding a steel suitcase, “kneeling at the center of the plaza, raising his arms in some sort of prayer. Some of us think we hear the name Allah. The man pauses, and we wonder, millions of us have wondered if in that pause he was reconsidering, if he might have turned back. We watch as the man opens the suitcase. Light — ”

* * *

Tomorrow and Tomorrow” opens a decade after that October 21st blast (year not specified), which killed 500,000 and rendered the environs a military-​controlled “Pittsburgh Exclusion Zone.” Dominic is a shell of a man, obsessed with memories of his wife, Theresa. She was standing in front of Kards Unlimited in Shadyside at the time of the catastrophe, pregnant with their first child, while Dominic was at an academic conference in Columbus, Ohio. With no CMU remaining for him to attend, he washes out of further graduate studies at the University of Virginia and lands in Washington, D.C., depressed and prone to drug use and eating Ho Hos.

A whiz at navigating the Archive, Dominic is employed by a firm that investigates deaths on behalf of insurance companies. They won’t make payouts on Pittsburgh people who didn’t die in “the Burn,” as the attack is known in popular parlance, and Dominic drills into the tough case of a 19-​year-​old CMU student named Hannah who went missing months before the bomb. After he discovers images of her body half-​buried in the mud of Nine Mile Run, a heap of trouble descends on him, from powers far nastier than a State Farm adjuster.

Before trying to describe the cavalcade of events that transpire, let me pass along a note from the publisher: This novel “has been optioned for film by Sony.” If it becomes a Hollywood movie — and I hope it does, because they will have to shoot much of it in Pittsburgh — expect a moody yet electrifying thriller with super-​rich monstrous villains, sexual atmospherics and taut action. Audiences might leave scratching their heads, not just from watching old Adware be removed from Dominic’s brain “like winding spaghetti onto a fork,” but from trying to unravel the motivations and machinations of the bad guys.

In the tradition of those hyper-​kinetic movies that you never fully figure out but still dig, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” crackles with intelligence and insights that entertain the brain. The science-​fiction extrapolations are within reason. With a major city vanquished, America is a militarized police state, with public executions presided over by President Eleanor Meecham. (She’s a former beauty queen, a conservative Christian from outside of Pittsburgh, elected after the Burn.) When a young woman is found murdered at a nightclub, the media reports rapidly turn to streams of “sexts sent to boyfriends, nude selfies posing in front of mirrors,” and within minutes, “her family signs with ‘Crime Scene Superstar,’ grieving but ready for their opportunity to share their daughter’s beauty with the world and collect royalties.”

Grim stuff, but Sweterlitsch deploys deadpan humor to leaven the mix. Dominic’s Czech cousin Gavril, a fashion impresario, takes him to dinner in Silver Spring, Md., at “Primanti’s, a gaudy Pittsburgh-​themed restaurant next to an indoor amusement park. A souvenir shop fronts the place. Adware flashing to the ‘Pennsylvania Polka’ begs me to buy limited edition We Will Never Forget clocks of the Golden Triangle beneath a waving American flag. We’re seated in a wooden bench beneath a picture of Franco and the Immaculate Reception. The waitress asks, ‘What’re yinz havin’?”

* * *

Sweterlitsch, putting his CMU master’s to use, also deploys platoons of cultural figures for atmosphere and bon mots: poets John Berryman, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and William Blake are cited; French theorists Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu show up to be dissed; Ingmar Bergman, Jean Genet, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt are among the cameos. Pittsburgh’s own Ed Steck rates a shout-​out, as does local philosopher Fred Rogers (Theresa was looking at a T-​shirt emblazoned with “It’s a Neighborly Day in the Beautywood” when the bomb goes off). Somehow it’s all quite sufferable. Sweterlitsch is an academic with whom you’d like to have a beer.

A key to the text, I venture to guess, brandishing a rusty B.A. from a state school, comes when Dominic tells one of his shrinks why he became disillusioned with graduate studies. Though he had only read a few essays on the essential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, it didn’t stop him from presenting a paper on Lacan’s theories on “the shifting nature of desire,” which left him feeling like a poseur.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the super-​rich monstrous villain of the novel is the man who has cornered the market on desire: Theodore Waverly, a chief developer of Adware, and a former Pittsburgh resident and chair of the Human-​Computer Interaction Institute at CMU. (Does Sweterlitsch have unresolved issues with his alma mater?) Waverly’s firm, Focal Networks, has created algorithms that replicate human thought, allowing him to make predictions about human behavior. “Our choices aren’t really our own,” he says in a lecture at CMU. “We are putty hardwired with biological imperatives.”

It gives nothing away to say that Waverly, a dirty old man with even worse family members, has a role in the death of Hannah, and that he engages the services of Dominic in an attempt to throw him off the hunt. To say more would spoil the discovery of a story with more twists and turns than the streets of Polish Hill.

Pittsburghers may recoil at the idea of “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” finding the prospect of an obliterated ’Burgh just too dismal, despite previous Cold War pride. But the real pleasures of the text are in Sweterlitsch’s loving descriptions of the city that Dominic visits in the Archive and his memory. “The tunnel, a square of burnished light cut into the mountainside,” he sees while cranking up Three Rivers Net to visit his late wife. “And through— a concrete blur of fluorescent light and ceramic tiles, the reverb whoosh of engines, wind, and when the tunnel ends, the City bursts around me in riotous blooms of glass and steel. I plunge through the skyline.”

Short takes

New selections from Pittsburgh authors

Cinderland By Amy Jo Burns

Beacon Press ($24.95)

Amy Jo Burns has a confession to make to “Mercury,” a former industrial town north of Pittsburgh: She lied, in 1991 at the age of 10, when asked if Mr. Lotte, a popular sixth-​grade teacher, had fondled her during the private piano lessons he gave at home. Mr. Lotte had taught hundreds of girls over the years (he taught girls only), and seven girls spoke up in the police investigation launched by the father of one, while Burns joined the silent majority. “Many of the townsfolk busied themselves by foretelling what would become of the girls who dared to speak out. They’d be lost, surely. Outcasts. Drunks. Sluts. Jezebels,” Burns recalls. None of that happened, but “we can attest, more than anyone else, that it’s not so easy to say nothing — not so easy at all. No one told us that acts of omission will always age into acts of desertion.”

Burns’s incisive memoir “Cinderland” changes names in an attempt to protect the innocent, but it’s easy to figure out that “Mercury” is Mercer. For one, she notes that the rock musician Trent Reznor grew up there, and every profile connects his angry, churning, complex sound to his hometown of Mercer. Burns, a Cornell graduate who now teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton, does not go for the literary equivalent of Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails. With gentle, focused prose, she turns the confessional memoir genre upside down, making the story of a straight-​A “good girl” with loving parents and a faithful Presbyterian upbringing just as compelling as those tales of dysfunction. Mr. Lotte’s case is adjudicated while Burns is still in middle school, but the aftermath continues throughout her life in “Mercury,” a town that she loves deeply but is dying to flee. Burns does not dwell on what she endured at the hands of the piano teacher whose hands wandered under her shirt — her focus is more on the guilt she felt in keeping silent while there were “seven witnesses braver than we can stomach.” But while most teenagers lead complicated emotional lives, the story she relates of her dating life in high school shows a young woman reluctant to trust. It’s more testimony, as if we need it, to the harm done by adults who abuse children.

Even with all our failings, I belonged to this town and these people in a way I wasn’t sure I could belong to anyone else,” Burns concludes, riding in a convertible as part of the “court” for the Homecoming parade. But “the downside to our post-​Lotte guide to survival is that we always feel as if we’re in trouble.” Mercer will no doubt be divided when this impressionistic memoir hits town, but the rest of us can be grateful to Amy Jo Burns for putting it all down.

Striking Gridiron: A Town’s Pride and a Team’s Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History

By Greg Nichols

Thomas Dunne Books/​St. Martin’s ($25.99)

Greg Nichols scores big in “Striking Gridiron,” a precise and comprehensive reconstruction of the Braddock High Tigers’ awe-​inspiring march to a national winning streak record in 1959, while the United Steelworkers union led a strike that shut down the industry nationwide, the largest strike in U.S. history.

Nichols, whose book grew out of a Winter 2012 article in Pittsburgh Quarterly, does justice to both sports and labor history, keeping the human element front and center with Braddock coach Chuck Klausing playing the pivotal lead role.

The 116-​day strike was ended by the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 7, 1959, one day after the Tigers defeated Canon-​McMillan to win its 53rd game in a row, the record at the time. In one of many telling details, Nichols relates that the Sports Illustrated coverage looked good at first, with four full pages headlined “A Town and Its Team.” But as Principal Stutkus read the article, with quotes like, “With many players from slums, the coach often aids boys’ families,” he rounded up every copy he could find and burned them in the school’s furnace. Don’t mess with Braddock.

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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