Ours is a time ripe for tall tales. So Pete Beatty’s yarn about two brothers’ adventures in an imaginary 1837 Cleveland fits the bill. Neither the archaic speech nor the dubious claims of its characters feel out of place in an era when the simplest fact is questioned and debated ad absurdum. Yet, unlike the daily inanities which plague the citizenry in 2020, Beatty’s Cuyahoga (Scribner) is a faithful attempt to make his readers feel better.
“In the stories you are used to, a stranger arrives at the castle, or the king is gnawed by crisis. Swords bang together. Ghosts trouble a pale hero. Lovers’ hearts boiling. We drink down such wild stories to drown our worries. They are whiskey to wash out our brains.”
The narrator is Medium Son—Meed to his friends—whose primary lot in life is documenting the exploits of his older brother, Big Son. Big clears forests single-handedly, puts out infernos, and rassles all comers. Big and Meed are orphans who live with a coffin maker’s family in Ohio City on the western shore of the Cuyahoga River, across from the nascent midwestern metropolis of Cleveland. Big is a legend in his own time—part-god, part-superhero—but he’s unhappy because though the people sing his praises, they do not compensate him in any material way, and with no prospects, his beloved, Cloe, rejects his endless proposals of marriage. When the richest man in town builds a bridge from Ohio City to Cleveland, what should be a boon to all becomes the focal point of bitter conflict. Meed chronicles each conflagration with biting good humor. Occasionally, he even tips his hand to reveal his own, not always honorable, part in the fight.
It took me a few pages to get used to Beatty’s intentionally stilted, anachronistic language, but soon it became as much a pleasure as the story being spun. By adopting a fairytale structure Beatty lets himself warp and play with the format of the traditional novel. Rather than listing the author and book or chapter title, for instance, the header on each page is a kind of summary of that page—no two are the same and, if you flip through just reading these headers, they form a kind of prose-poem CliffsNotes of the entire book. It reminded me of being a child reading about Gargantua and Pantagruel, Paul Bunyan, and Baron Munchausen, enjoying the pictures as much as the words. Like those mythical heroes, Big is larger than life but also patently ridiculous. As our surrogate, Meed never misses an opportunity to cut his brother down to size. Unlike the grim, humorless superheroes who’ve overrun our culture, Big can occasionally even laugh at himself.
I had to look up shinplasters and Lucifer matches to make sure Beatty didn’t make them up, but I wouldn’t have been disappointed if he had. He obviously relished the research necessary to bring his long ago midwest back to life. Despite their speech and pre-industrial mode of living, the citizens of Ohio City are not so different from us. They scheme, boast, and dream. Perhaps we don’t assume that the trees, rivers, and livestock are animated the same as we are, but a visitor from 1837 would think most of us are completely unhinged for interacting with inanimate devices as if they were our dear friends. The past has no monopoly on ignorant customs. Setting the action in another time, told in a wry semi-biblical argot, allows Beatty to fashion a fantasy with many contemporary overtones.
Whose point of view dictates the hero’s journey? What are a narrator’s motives? Is there even such a thing as a hero anymore? These questions occur on a daily basis reading today’s news. Meed seems ever torn between building Big up and tearing him down. He looks up to his brother but is also jealous and resentful. Access to media leaves people today in a similar quandary. We build statues, knock them down, then replace them with new ones. But how long will these last? It’s an endless cycle.
In the end Big is no longer so big, his beloved hometown is about to be swallowed by the city across the river, he has accepted that the love of his life will not have him, and his brother’s motives are still up in the air. Beatty closes on a cliffhanger, but I didn’t begrudge him for it because I so enjoyed the ride. v