Dos Passos’s classic trilogy U.S.A. now has a rival, in this richly plotted, consistently engrossing big novel, which examines “the enormous dreams of a great northern city” as lived by its two principals and other members of the political and personal “worlds” through which they move.
The city is Cleveland during the years 1948–69, when it will rise to, and fall from, national prominence. Anne O’Connor is the willful youngest child of a wealthy Irish Catholic (and, yes, Kennedyesque) family whose patriarch is a powerful political boss—David Zielinsky, estranged son of a shady labor-union enforcer and a runaway film star who may have been murdered by her lover. In a hearty, hectoring omniscient narrative voice that addresses the reader (and occasionally the characters) directly, Winegardner traces this pair’s meetings and partings over the years, as Anne’s ambition to become a war correspondent is funneled into a moderately successful journalistic career, and David’s aspiration to his city’s mayoralty takes him as far as a city council seat. Running beneath the currents of their lives are the fortunes of Cleveland’s beloved professional sports franchises (Winegardner’s The Veracruz Blues, 1996, is one of our best-ever baseball novels). And a host of vividly drawn historical figures also appear: crimebuster Eliot Ness, Indians’ slugger Vic Wertz, accused murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, and Browns’ place-kicker Lou (“The Toe”) Groza, and in chapters titled “Local Heroes” (which clearly echo Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye” sequences), such notables as radio-TV newswoman Dorothy Fuldheim and Cleveland’s first black mayor, Carl Stokes, make memorable extended appearances. In a striking climax, oil slicks cause the Cuyahoga River to “burn,” as it had years earlier—and Anne’s and David’s separate and common stories are thrown into powerfully ironic high relief.
Vance Bourjaily and Harvey Swados used to write replete, ambitious novels like Crooked River Burning. A wonderful read that brings the (recently much neglected) urban tradition in American fiction vibrantly back to life.