So why did Mark Winegardner write a 561-paged novel on Cleveland? And why are people reading it?

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Harcourt

“Cause he obviously likes the place, and he”s proved to be a good storyteller, even though he may tell a familiar one.

In “Crooked River Burning,” Winegardner follows the lives of star-crossed lovers David Zielinsky and Anne O”Connor, growing up with different backgrounds in Cleveland. Starting in 1948, the year the Cleveland Indians won their last World Series, Winegardner describes the contrasting lives of David and Anne. David was raised by his aunt and uncle in a working-class area and Anne was the daughter of a Cuyahoga County political boss.

David and Anne meet as teenagers because of a mutual enthusiasm for a brand new type of music called rock “n” roll. Yet their class difference keeps them apart. David goes through a rocky marriage with a girl from his neighborhood while Anne pursues her ambition to become a war correspondent. David, who had always dreamt of being mayor, becomes a reformist city councilman. When they meet years later, change has dissolved many social barriers. Anne and David can love each other as equals.

Yet this love story is only a part of it. At times, the city of Cleveland and its history seem to overshadow the main characters. Winegardner weaves in famous Clevelanders like Alan Freed, who deejayed at the world”s first rock concert in 1951 in a hockey venue, and Bill Veeck, who owned American League teams in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago from 1946-1980. David and his uncle even have lunch with Eliot Ness one afternoon only years later does David realize who the “hollow cheeked man in a once-fashionable suit” is. Carl Stokes, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Hoffa, murder suspect Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer TV anchor Dorothy Fuldheim and newspaper mogul Louie Seltzer are also mentioned. Even the Cuyahoga river has a part in this story. “The Cuyahoga clotted with black freighters, kinked as a great beast”s spilled intestine, glowing green and yellow. It was a beautiful damn thing.”

However, this novel is not unbelievable or too consequential, it”s just a new way of looking at Cleveland. We know it”s America”s greatest joke but we may not know especially why or why not. Winegardner avoids just explaining why this is such a fabulous city, because he doesn”t lie, the city isn”t that fabulous. “As far as the eye can see stretched a crooked valley: A tenebrous wonderland carpeted with smokestacks and tank farms, drawbridges, ore trains, and every stippled color of smoke and fire you could imagine.” Cleveland”s eras and social change merely drives the plot forward.

Winegardner, whose influences include Raymond Carver and John Updike, has written mostly non-fiction. Preferring fiction, he suggests that more stories with a Cleveland backdrop is on the way. After researching for five years, even speaking to Congressman Louis Stokes about his brother Carl, the first African-American big-city mayor, he”s got enough details. Growing up in Ohio, but never actually living in Cleveland, Winegardner is now a professor and director of the creative writing program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla.

From reading this novel, you”ll get more than a love story or a Cleveland social history lesson, you”ll be entertained. Written with footnotes, humor and often sarcastic undertones, it”s worth all 561 pages.

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