Crooked River Burning
Crooked River Burning encompasses 20-plus years of Cleveland's history, beginning in 1948 and ending in 1969. It's almost a golden age--in 1948, Cleveland was the country's sixth-biggest city, winner of the World Series, a city with a bright future. Just two decades later, the city found itself only 12th-largest and christened the "Mistake on the Lake," a national joke synonymous with industrial pollution. Its river burned.
But Cleveland, author Mark Winegardner insists, has gotten a bad rap, and his new novel goes a long way toward addressing the events that led to the Ohio city's infamy. Just as he did in his first novel, The Veracruz Blues, Winegardner mixes fact and fiction by including real-life characters along with imaginary ones. While Blues celebrated a 1940s Mexican baseball team, Crooked River Burning takes a much larger bite, tackling a troubled city, its people, and its politics.
Winegardner zooms in on local legends such as Alan Freed, the disk jockey who staged the first rock 'n' roll concert. Carl Stokes (no relation to the Baltimore mayoral candidate of the same name), the first black mayor of a major American city, spends a chapter holding Cleveland together during the racial unrest of the late '60s. This ambitious novel also tells several other stories: what happened to G-man
Eliot Ness after his glory days busting up the mob, the early years of the Cleveland Browns, and the career of Louis Seltzer, aka "Mr. Cleveland," whose editorial crusades in The Cleveland Press created a circus around the Sam Sheppard murder trial. (Dr. Sheppard's story would later inspire TV's The Fugitive.)
Winegardner holds all this together with the story of an on-again, off-again relationship between the novel's two fictional protagonists, David Zielinsky and Anne O'Connor. Brought together first by chance, later by circumstance, and united by their love of rock 'n' roll, David and Anne come from different social worlds. Anne, daughter of Cleveland's political boss, lives in affluent Shaker Heights. She's a smart, precocious beauty with dreams of becoming a war correspondent. Instead she grows up to be a TV news anchor. David lives in working-class Old Brooklyn with his aunt and uncle. His mother died mysteriously and his mostly absent father, a Teamsters official, is a slick racketeer. David's happiest moment occurs in 1948 when he sees Satchel Paige, one of the first blacks in baseball's American League, pitch two perfect innings against the Yankees: "The day he felt. A boy like David Zielinsky, from the West Side, who grew up to become a man who was not a bigot and who held before him like a chalice the enormous dreams of a great northern city." David becomes a progressive city council member who steers clear of corruption, though he sometimes accepts favors from "people who know people."
The scenes blending fact and fiction are entirely convincing--Winegardner's vivid and detailed prose summons a palpable Cleveland, wholly re-imagined. He writes fabulous sentences, lively and funny, and successfully incorporates both third- and second-person narration. At times playful, with the occasional ironic footnote, this self-aware though hardly self-conscious novel will reward you for the time you spend with it. (Thomas Bligh)