Angels and Demons in an America Left Behind

It is dangerous to ask fiction to always be relevant, but when skilled writers reach for themes close to the heart, I can’t help but pick them up. Tales of Rust Belt cities or rural former mining towns have immediate resonance for me, and based on the evidence of thirty billion Trump era thinkpieces and resulting Ohio senatorial campaigns, I am not alone. Fiction at its best can tie themes together on more emotionally resonant levels than exacting reporting ever can, and two recent novels dove straight into this territory, telling two stories of children who come of age in forgotten places and cope in diametrically different ways.

The Rabbit Hutch is the tale of Blandine Watkins, nee Tiffany, who shares her apartment in the titular affordable housing development with three boys who, like her, are fresh out of foster care. She has a tortured relationship with her hometown, a fictional Indiana Rust Belt relic named Vacca Vale. (This city name, alas, only made me think of Vacaville, a wonderful Spanish-English mash-up of a name for a California city just north of the Bay Area.) She wanders the streets and tells the tale of her city’s decline, endures floods as its climate shifts, and becomes the lonely defender against a planned development in a cherished park named Chastity Valley. She takes on the name Blandine to channel one of her heroes, the early Christian female mystics who stood as lonely voices of protest against corrupt, crumbling systems. Whether she is a martyr like the real second-century Blandine is a question left to readers of this debut novel by Tess Gunty.

Like many first publications of American MFA program offspring, The Rabbit Hutch tries to do a lot, its voices not all consistent. Gunty, a South Bend native and Notre Dame alumna, clearly knows her territory, recasting Studebaker’s decline in that city through the tale of the Zorn Automobile Company in a wrenching examination of the remaining ruins. (Vacca Vale seems to lack any golden domes that might keep the outside money pouring in.) On the flip side, the threatened redevelopment of Chastity Valley is cartoonish, the sadness of Blandine’s teacher seducer an eternal cringe. I thought the whole thing could have held together just fine sans the amusing, meandering story of Moses Blitz, the exhibitionist who spurs along Blandine’s rapture. (Perhaps this should have been novel number two.) The undercurrent of absurdity built through digression after digression takes oxygen away from the reality of the rabbits in the hutch, too many of them left to too small parts in Blandine’s drama.

Blandine’s drama, however, can carry a story on its own. She brushes up against the other Rabbit Hutch inhabitants, all seeking some stability in chaotic lives, in a series of poignant set pieces. Her three roommates fall into tropes but all illustrate something valuable: social media pretty boy Malik, aloof Todd, and everyman Jack, who takes the narrative reins to rationalize the absurdity of the whole affair. Gunty’s decision to let Todd illustrate the novel’s climax in drawings adds a twist to Blandine’s long-foreshadowed fate, one of many bold thrusts by our author, whose creative range is wide enough to make the thing worth reading and hope she returns to Vacca Vale for more.

Gunty had the misfortune of emerging at the same time that a great institution of American literature took up some of the same themes. Barbara Kingsolver has been churning out bestselling literary fiction for years, and last fall she provided an update on Dickens’ David Copperfield in Demon Copperhead, its characters reborn in turn-of-the-millennium Appalachia, stripped of their Victorian morals and cast adrift in a sea of heroin and meth and Oxy. A 67-year-old woman surges out in a teenage boy, keen in his insight and dry in his humor, wrenchingly tender and hard as nails, descending into the deepest recesses of an American hellscape to produce one of the more compelling narrative voices I’ve encountered. Kingsolver’s book was one of the most absorbing I’ve read in years.

Demon Copperhead, nee Damon Fields, is born to a drug addict mother in a single-wide in Lee County, Virginia. His dad died in a place named the Devil’s Bathtub, and until the foster care system intervenes he is raised largely by his neighbors, the Peggotts, who are themselves raising a grandchild of the same age left behind by an incarcerated mother. He bounces from home to home, treated horribly, his only support from other kids, most notably the alluring Fast Forward, a magnetic high school football star who introduces ten-year-olds to pharm parties. Even when Demon secures an intervention from his rigid paternal grandmother and seems to reach a clear road through middle school, his own athletic success writes a prescription for his undoing. What follows is a brutal tale of addiction and life on the edge, an immersion in the inner workings of a boy still somehow seized by an instinct to persevere.

Demon and Blandine are twinned orphans of American collapse. Demon gets subjected to exploitative foster parents, though finds some support in inspiring teachers; Blandine wins the foster parent lottery, but gets wrecked by the teacher who takes her under his wing. Eminently practical Demon learns how to play the game and get by in any situation, which in Lee County leads him straight toward trouble; Blandine seeks a transcendent plane above her besotted surroundings, only to have them come crashing down on her naiveté. Hopes and dreams for either of them would imply an escape from their stations, yet Demon comes to own his roots, while Blandine is Vacca Vale’s most ardent environmental champion and/or ecoterrorist. The U-Haul escape is never so easy as any outsider might think, especially where there is a creepy snake of a man named U-Haul filling the role of Uriah Heep to Demon’s David Copperfield.

It is worth pondering Demon’s fate for a moment to see how far the world has come since David Copperfield. Dickens’ orphans, after all, did not have to contend with the pill mills of Appalachia, and that era’s concerns about sex look quaint in retrospect. There is a quiet but present Wendell Berry-style lament about modernity in Kingsolver’s prose, as successive generations of Appalachians lose touch with the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and the deeper cultural byways (sustained, in Demon’s world, by a Black transplant form Chicago), all flattened by mass media and consumer capitalism and doped-out societal collapse. But at the same time there are more ladders out, more however imperfect supports, more pathways for the Angus Winfields and June Peggotts to rise up and then return and tackle injustices head-on. And while New York Times reviewer Molly Young finds Demon’s eventual fate sorry in comparison to Copperfield’s ascend to Dickensian fame, it is also far more realistic: maybe Damon Fields can’t be a global celebrity, but maybe he can be a clean, decent guy with a loving girl who looks out for his people and provides stability in a place that needs it. If that is a condemnation of this era, may we all be so damned.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that contemporary fiction is at its best when it can take the slightly longer view. I have yet to read a tale of the Covid-19 pandemic or Trump Era America that truly compels me; these works always seem freighted with a try-hard quest for relevance, and wear their politics a bit too brazenly, and the climate change and redevelopment angles of The Rabbit Hutch fall right into that vein. Far more powerful are the retrospectives like Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and now Demon Copperhead, which look back across a few decades with sage eyes. Somewhere in here lies the enduring power of the social novel in an era of information and new media overload: it allows for meditation, for slow thought, for careful processing of what has transpired in a lifetime. It escapes the noise of the zeitgeist to pick out what should endure. (The great novelists who do write in the present, like Sally Rooney, achieve the same state by stripping out the superfluous details and allusions, boiling their prose down to the essentials.) Twenty years on from the start of the opioid epidemic, Kingsolver’s thundering moral authority punches harder because we, as readers, know exactly what will come of it, and while some of her jabs at the system that created hillbilly elegies land better than others, they all add up to an undeniable truth about the nation it has wrought. Her work is no less political than The Rabbit Hutch, but time allows it to get the perspective a bit more right.

Both The Rabbit Hutch and Demon Copperhead are deeply invested in their young protagonists. There is a risk here of sentimentality, of falling too far in love with these kids battered by forces beyond their control who nonetheless dream of more. But while not all fiction can have happy endings, neither can it all be portents of doom: it can instead tell a story that stands alone outside of any great arcs of progress or decline, speaking for itself and any relevance felt on a deeper plane by its readers. Moreover, great social novels not only reveal reality as it is or was, but can also nudge their readers, however gently, toward belief in something more. Somewhere in here lies the triumph of storytelling, an experience both immersive and thought-provoking that is more necessary than ever in a world of endless digital distraction. This is what good fiction should do.


Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy–apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor–but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of this blog will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself a declinist. That golden past usually had its own ugly features, and nostalgia and selective memory whitewash the worst of it. Coping with change is also one of the greatest engines of human ingenuity and heroism, and if noting else, it’s remarkably educational for those of us looking not to repeat past errors. If we fixate only on decline, we become depressing, tiresome people who are locked into a single lens and not much fun to talk to at parties.

Still, Vance likes Janesville. Despite the oversaturation of the genre–porn is everywhere these days, after all–its author, Amy Goldstein, gets to the heart of the flawed human stories, and instead of merely lamenting loss, looks to assess the responses to it. This one would likely strike home for me, too: my earliest memories are of the short stint my family spent living in a small town just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, and my mother worked there for a time. Unfortunately, Goldstein comes to fairly depressing conclusions. The basic tools of the trade in economic development, Janesville argues, have done little good to stem the tide of decline. Neither have worker retraining efforts, a rare point of bipartisan consensus on putting communities back to work. It adds up to a depressing summation of post-industrial America, with no obvious way forward for anyone.

Unless, of course, there might be any exceptions to the trend out there. I happen to be living in one.

Duluth, Minnesota is not heaven on earth. Its economy is not booming, its poverty rate is high, and there has been a rash of opioid overdoses, as in so much of the America exposed so ubiquitously in decline porn. But I will submit that it’s important to think about what it could have been, and that Duluth’s story is as much a triumph as any medium-sized Rust Belt town. In the early 1980s, its unemployment rate was second only to Youngstown, Ohio, which is not exactly great company to have. Population plummeted, manufacturing packed up and left, and a billboard asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

Most Rust Belt cities remain mired in the post-industrial swamp; the few that have broken free, like Pittsburgh, are the large ones that operate on a very different scale. And yet Duluth has charted a respectable course since it hit rock bottom in the 80s. Unlike every other Rust Belt city, its population has been stable since 1990, instead of continued shrinkage. (See the table on this page for comparison cities.) The city is basically at full employment. Income growth around the greater Duluth area, while not on par with the booming coastal metros, does outpace the stagnant national average since 1990. The median income within the city itself, while not stellar ($40-some thousand), is a clear step above the Eries, Akrons, South Bends, and Scrantons of the world. The city’s image rehabilitation has been thorough, as it now comes off as an outdoorsy playground for Twin Cities residents on vacation. The Trump tide made little headway in the city proper (though precinct-level data challenges some aspects of the dominant media narrative, and suggests Trump was largely a rural and exurban phenomenon in Rust Belt states, not something that happened inside its former industrial engines). Sure, “we’re better than Flint!” isn’t exactly a winning slogan, but it’s important to understand what the odds were, and what could have been.

There are two ways to explain this.

The first is one of leadership and vision and a certain Duluthian exceptionalism, which us Duluthians would certainly like to believe. A lot of credit in this line of thinking goes to Don Ness, the young mayor who served from 2008-2016 and brought the city’s debt under control and led a massive rebranding effort. But he had some strong forerunners. At the height of the crisis in the 80s, Duluth elected 29-year-old John Fedo. Unlike the consensus-driven and generally beloved Ness, Fedo was a warrior who wasn’t afraid to make enemies to push through his vision, but he also operated in a very different environment, and push through his vision he did. Fedo’s strategy was Keynesianism par excellence, with a junkyard reinvented as a tourist district and work crews set to work rebuilding streets for the sake of work and little else. Those efforts endure in obvious ways. His more market-oriented successor, Gary Doty, tried a lot of things to revive the economy, and while not all of them stuck, the general thrust was positive, as the city landed companies that are the cornerstones of the aviation and healthcare clusters that remain among its most promising foundations for sustained success. Beyond those three mayors, there’s the political influence of some clever longtime political operators who knew how to bring in the benefits like Jim Oberstar and Willard Munger, who were ahead of their time with ideas for building trail networks and capping freeways.

We can’t just credit the politicians, though. Duluth’s rehabilitation always had strong support from a loyal private sector, which continues to support changes through development and philanthropy. Pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci was a complicated figure with a complicated relationship with Fedo, but he did bankroll a lot of the changes in Canal Park. Several other big names in business left their mark, as did some of the legacy families whose early 20th century wealth continues to support local foundations and scholarships. That old money remains a boon to Duluth, as does a strong civic culture with its roots in Scandinavian immigration and a thriving arts scene that allows the city to punch far above its weight.

This, however, feeds into the other explanation, which has much more to do with structural factors than any brilliant maneuvering by the people in charge.

First off, geography has had its say. We call Duluth a Rust Belt city because it used to be a manufacturing center on the Great Lakes, and suffered the loss of that economic base and a drop in population comparable to other Rust Belt cities. But it’s isolated from the rest of them, and that may contain some spillover effects or a general sense that everything is going downhill. Instead, it sits in Minnesota, home to one of the wealthiest and most white collar metropolitan areas in the country in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As a regional center with a university and some hospitals, Duluth has some staying power that an Akron, just down the road from Cleveland, may not.

Local geography makes a difference, too. While Duluth isn’t overflowing with buildable land, it has had some pockets for new subdivisions that allowed for continued new home construction. Duluth has also proven somewhat resistant to the mass suburbanization of other Rust Belt cities; while there has certainly been growth beyond the city limits, it hasn’t come at major expense to the city’s tax base. A tour of the other Rust Belt cities will show that none of them has a Congdon: while some of the larger metro areas do have wealthy suburban neighbors, basically none of them have concentrations wealth of any size within the city limits. (The only real exception, surprisingly, is Charleston, West Virginia, which benefits from the machinery of a state government that most Rust Belt cities lack.) For that matter, precious few Rust Belt cities have many Lakesides, Woodlands, or Piedmonts, those stable, comfortably middle class neighborhoods that allow for upward mobility and keep perceptions of public schools afloat. Many of these neighborhoods (and even little nice blocks that don’t show up in census tract data) are fairly isolated, strung out along Duluth’s 27 miles of ridgeline and separated by streams and parks. Even though they are older, they feel fairly suburban, and the park-like nature of the whole city just makes it more resistant to changes that might march smoothly down more cohesive urban grids. It has so many different little pockets, and that diversity begets resilience.

Speaking of diversity, Duluth has always been a very white city–yes, a 1920 lynching probably played a role in that–and the relative lack of racial dynamics make it distinct from a lot of Rust Belt cities that convulsed with conflict in the mid-20th century.  White flight didn’t happen in Duluth on any meaningful scale, and while I wish I could claim this was due to some enlightened thinking on behalf of Duluthians, in reality there probably just weren’t enough people of color to set off that chain reaction. (Typically, this happens when the non-white population hits about 20%; Duluth remains over 90% white.) While the center of Duluth has hollowed out like basically every American city, Rust Belt or not, that probably had more to do with a declining old housing stock and poverty among white people. Other than perhaps some very recent school-driven outmigration, the growth in Duluth’s more suburban areas had much more to do with an abundance of buildable land and desire for space and newer homes than anything related to the people in Duluth itself. The city has been crawling toward greater diversity over recent decades, and if that trend continues or accelerates, Duluth’s response could well determine its future.

All of these factors are most likely intertwined in feedback loops, the causes impossible to separate from one another. There are few obvious lessons here, and some of Duluth’s strengths are accidents of geography in a city at the end of the line in the far north. But the relative successes are real, the leadership examples are real, and some of the things Duluth needs to do to remain an exemplar of Rust Belt success are clear, and cut across all such small cities. It needs to maintain its strong neighborhoods, keep its schools afloat, and prepare for an increasingly diverse future. Continued growth in diverse economic clusters will build a stronger safety net against future crashes. Concentration of poverty will only exacerbate divides and cut off pathways to eventual mobility. Duluth also needs to think on the level of a regional system, so that its future doesn’t devolve into squabbles between the city proper and the outlying areas. They’re all interconnected, part of one economy and one labor market, and their fates are intertwined.

As addicting as the decline porn may be, I’d much rather have an amorous adventure with something real, and with something that can learn from the past and grow into a future with me. It’s all right there before us.