Appealing, original fusion of personal essay collection and Rust Belt post-mortem.
Giffels (English/Univ. of Akron; All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, 2008, etc.) takes an audacious approach to considering his 1970s adolescence in Akron, Ohio, and his life there ever since. He became aware of the hardscrabble region’s ingrained traditions and civic pride as they were being blown away by its declining economic infrastructure. While his essays are funny and crisply rendered, there’s an undertone of wonderment at the sheer loss of functionality and productive might in such places: “Generations knew this part of the country as the region that built modern America,” writes the author. “I’m of the first generation that never saw any of that.” The essays sketch a rough arc of Giffels’ life as set against the rambling decay of postindustrial Akron and Cleveland (where his family rooted for the perpetually losing Browns and Cavaliers). As the author reached adolescence, caroused within the region’s vibrant underground-rock scene and began a career at the Akron Beacon Journal, he realized that the physical entropy and economic marginalization of the region somehow fueled its survivors with a perverse vitality as they attempted to make art or music or simply survive. “Recognizing the value of forgotten or broken things seems, at least in my part of the country, to be the story of America in the twenty-first century,” he writes. Standout essays include an account of watching the cavernous used bookstore that sparked his literary passion burn down, his hilarious season as a ball boy for the dispirited Cavaliers and youthful encounters with regional traditions: strong drink, bowling, thrift stores and punk rock. The author’s tone is relaxed and approachable, yet he never loses sight of the social costs incurred by the alleged obsolescence of the blue-collar Midwest.
These seasoned dispatches convey an important narrative of regional marginalization; Giffels’ work deserves to avoid that fate.