“It took me every ounce of 10 years to write this book,” says Ryan Bartelmay, author of Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward. “I was tending bar at night and had all day to write. After I’d finish eight or nine hours, I’d sit at my kitchen table with an open beer and a bag of peas.”

The fruits of Bartelmay’s labor are sweet—not in the treacly sense but in terms of the depth and ambition of his story, the sweeping tale of the Waldbeeser family of Middleville, Ill., plus a cast of characters he describes as “grotesque” in their emotional complexities.

Robert Lasner, of IG Publishing, calls Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward a Midwestern One Hundred Years of Solitude. When he met Bartelmay at AWP in Chicago in 2009, he knew the author was at work on a big novel; two years later, when he read Onward (which came to him unagented), Lasner says he was in awe, with a tinge of sadness: “Awe, because of the scope of the novel; sadness because the book is really a story about loss, and the inability of family members to connect with one another. It would be as if Joyce wrote Ulysses as his first book.”

Onwards has received praise from Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, and Dinaw Mengestu.