In Search of Ohio
Dawn Powell once remarked, “All Americans come from Ohio originally, if only briefly.” This quotation has been in my mind lately. Thanks to the presidential election, we’ve been hearing a lot about Ohio over the past few weeks. It has been declared the swing state of all swing states, the bellwether of all bellwethers. If President Obama maintains his slim but consistent lead in the state, then he’ll likely win a second term and secure the continued existence of things like Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act. If Governor Romney battles back and takes the state, then he has a good shot of beating Obama in the Electoral College and, afterwards, repealing (and replacing, he claims, but with what he won’t quite say) both health care and financial reform. For a few more days, we are all Ohioans.
So what is Ohio like? My experience with the state is limited: I’ve been to Cleveland a few times and to a Books-a-Million in Sandusky once, but that’s about it. What I’ve seen I’ve really liked—Cleveland is a great, great city, and the rest areas off I-80 are among the cleanest, most pleasant I’ve ever had reason to stop at—but I haven’t seen much. In the hopes of better understanding this most American (or, at least, this most electorally decisive) state, I figured I’d do the scientific thing: look at a few products of contemporary culture, extrapolate a vision of the state from them, and call it a day. So here they are: one book, one movie, and one song which, taken together, can help us to figure out the Buckeye State.
Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock
God, let’s hope Ohio isn’t really like this. This 2008 collection of short stories takes as its subject Knockemstiff, the southern Ohio town from which Pollock hails. (Yes, that’s the town’s real name.) Pollock has an interesting life story: he worked for more than thirty years at a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio until he decided to quit, enroll in the MFA Program at Ohio State, and become a writer. He has since published two books, both very well received, and has been compared to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. (He’s also been compared to Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, and this, to my mind, is the better—and less laudatory—comparison.)
Pollock’s backwoods Ohio is filled with many unpleasant things—incest and drug abuse, cussing and drinking, violence and more violence. And it’s filled with a host of even more unpleasant characters, figures who make Sherwood Anderson’s “grotesques” from Winesburg, Ohio look like angels. Heck, they make Flannery O’Connor’s grotesques look pretty mild, too. There’s Jake Lowery, the local recluse and psychopath who rapes and murders a girl, then hides her body in a cave: “I dunked the little girl under the water like I was baptizing her and kept stuffing her up inside the hole until she got caught.” There’s Theodore, a boy who is obsessed with Vietnam and whose mother, in one of the more disturbing erotic games dreamed up in contemporary literature, forces him to dress up like various famous serial killers and pretend to terrorize her. There’s Todd, a relatively gentle, gay young man who receives a small inheritance and seems to find some kind of bizarre, drug-fueled happiness with a local friend; that is, until the friend rapes him and steals his money.
Here is a sampling of the opening lines from Pollock’s stories: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old”; “When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely”; “Standing in his underwear in front of the faded pink duplex that he and Geraldine rented, Del came out of a blackout while taking a leak in the dead August grass.” Knockemstiff is a mean book about a mean town written in a mean style. There are moments of dark humor, and, believe it or not, even moments of real lyricism. But the picture it paints of Ohio is, needless to say, a bleak one. I’m betting Obama and Romney won’t be stopping by this part of the state in the days ahead.
Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols
Take Shelter is set in Elyria, Ohio (which, oddly enough, was the subject of a recent series of articles in the New York Times). It concerns a man named Curtis LaForche who has increasingly violent visions of the end of the world, visions that might mean the world really is coming to an end or simply that he’s going crazy. Take Shelter is my choice for the best movie of the last few years, not just because of its psychological thrills but because of its fine attention to life in the Midwest.
Though it might seem strange to say about a movie that identifies Ohio as ground zero for the apocalypse, Take Shelter offers a sympathetic portrait of the state. Here, Ohio is in part defined by its natural beauty: the sky that seems to stretch on forever, the thunderstorms that roll in from the horizon and are sublime in their terror but also in their beauty. It’s also defined by its sense of community: we see markets and community dinners, families who are in way over their heads but who still try and support each other as best they can. Many of these bonds fray and even break in the face of Curtis’s premonitions; he loses his job, his best friend, and almost his family. But this is less a commentary on the weakness of social bonds than on the dangerous strength of Curtis’s visions. For director Jeff Nichols, Ohio can’t quite hold out against the apocalypse, but it does as good a job as we could imagine.
“Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the National
This song comes from the National’s 2010 album, High Violet. Anyone who has seen the National perform live will not be surprised to learn that the band is currently based in Brooklyn. While on stage, lead singer Matt Berninger looks the part of the hipster, with an unkempt blond beard and an ever-present carafe of white wine in hand. But Beringer attended both high school and college in Cincinnati, and he and his band are loyal to their roots. (They have even been known to dedicate songs in concert to the Cincinnati Reds.)
So what is Ohio like in “Bloodbuzz Ohio”? Like many National songs, this one is difficult to make sense of, at least lyrically. Still, we can say that the song is about the past and how it grabs a hold of us, how, even if we don’t love it, our first home seems to have some gravitational pull that brings us back to it—to lick old wounds, to remember old hurts, to despair about the future. “I was carried / To Ohio in a swarm of bees,” Beringer sings, “I’ll never marry / But Ohio don’t remember me.”
Among the song’s many repeated lines, the most memorable are these: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe. / The floors are falling out from everybody I know.” In this song, Ohio is a land of indebtedness and financial precariousness, a place where, even if economic recovery is underway, it won’t affect the instability and despair that have rotted through the system. The song ends with the repeated lines, “I’m on a blood buzz, / Yes I am, / I’m on a blood buzz, / I’m on a blood buzz, / God I am, / I’m on a blood buzz.” Things vibrate in Ohio—with urgency but without, it appears, much hope.
Of course, since 2010 things have gotten a bit better in Ohio. Thanks in large part to the auto bailout, unemployment is lower in Ohio than it is in the rest of the country (surely one of the reasons Obama seems to be performing well there). The National haven’t shied away from political engagement before. They agreed to let Obama use one of their songs, “Fake Empire,” in his 2008 campaign, and they wrote another, earlier song, “Mr. November,” about then-candidate John Kerry. (Not that this was a straightforward, unironic bit of propaganda. One repeated line goes, “I’m the new blue blood. I’m the great white hope.”)
Surely the National is pulling for the President. They recently chastised Romney for using “Fake Empire” in his own campaign: the former governor, they said, exemplifies “the self-serving politics of the neo-conservative movement,” the same politics that are skewered in “Fake Empire.” It is ironic, then, that if President Obama wins, it will be in large part because, contrary to the message of “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” residents of the state have begun to hope again.