cover image Crooked River Burning

Crooked River Burning

Mark Winegardner / Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $36

In this ambitious novel, Winegardner captures the interior life of Cleveland, Ohio, from the city's peak in the '40s to its lowest ebb in 1969, when the Cuyahoga River, saturated with pollutants, famously caught fire. David Zielinsky, first seen in 1948, is a 14-year-old raised in the ethnic enclave of Old Brooklyn, a Cleveland neighborhood. Since his mother drowned in California, he has lived with his Aunt Betty and Uncle Stan Lychak, instead of with Mikey Z., his father, a mob-connected Teamster Union official. Uncle Stan is a private detective who once worked for the great Eliot Ness. On the other side of town, in Shaker Heights, Anne O'Connor, the daughter of the ex-mayor and Democratic machine boss, Thomas O'Connor, inhabits a more affluent world. David and Anne meet in 1952 at a local vacation spot and fall in love. But it is a platonic idyll: David is already engaged to Irene Hrudka. The novel is structured around David and Anne's initial separation and their encounters over the years. David goes into politics, Anne embarks on a career in TV journalism. Unfolding in high modernist mode, the novel intelligently depicts the squabbles of local celebrities and the self-consciousness of second-tier cities. Winegardner moves from real historyDlike the story of Louis Seltzer, the editor of the Cleveland Press who almost singlehandedly provoked the murder case against Sam SheppardDto fictitious episodes, like David's speech in favor of Carl Stokes, Cleveland's first black mayor. Cleveland may be on the decline in this urban portrait, but Winegardner (The Veracruz Blues) infuses his tale with an exhilarating energy. Like Jonathan Franzen in The Twenty-Seventh City, or E.L. Doctorow in City of God, Winegardner takes on the American metropolis, making Cleveland his own in plain, straightforward prose. (Jan.) Forecast: Sales of this book may initially be regional, but good word of mouth could excite interest among readers looking for a long, leisurely novel that focuses on a tantalizing slice of contemporary history. Enthusiastic blurbs by Jonathan Lethem and Robert Olen Butler will enhance sales.