A collection of literary criticism that demonstrates how the Midwest of Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis has been significantly altered in the works of novelists who have explored the region in recent decades.
Athitakis, a freelance critic who has published in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, and other venues, debuts with a journey through the Midwest (whose boundaries are fluid) and through some key works by writers he thinks are most effectively using the region in their fiction. Arranged thematically, the chapters deal with such subjects as the changes in the region’s legendary work ethic, immigration, religion, and fiction, eccentricity and oddness, the bildungsroman, and so on. In each section, the author identifies (in boldface) those writers he wishes to examine and/or recommend. Many of the names are familiar to readers of serious contemporary fiction—e.g., Marilynne Robinson, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen—but some names, especially those in the final chapter (writers on whom he has not focused earlier), will surprise. Others will be familiar principally to the cognoscenti: Stuart Dybek and Angela Flournoy are just a few of them. Among the most impressive aspects of Athitakis’ work is his comprehensive knowledge of the writers of the region, both former and current. He ably discusses not only their well-known works, but also their early and/or minor works. Throughout, he offers perceptive observations about each writer: Marilynne Robinson’s works are “more irreverent about religion than they let on,” and Gillian Flynn has identified “a secretly menacing quality to the Midwest that often goes unspoken.” Unafraid of declaration, Athitakis writes that Middlesex is Jeffrey Eugenides’ “greatest achievement,” and he boldly delivers a possible candidate for The Great American Novel: Leon Forrest’s massive Divine Days (1992).
Readers may cavil with Athitakis’ choices, but they can’t question his research, erudition, and clarity of expression.