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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, weve 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 hell 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 wont 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: Ive been to Cleveland a few times and to a Books-a-Million in Sandusky once, but thats about it. What Ive seen Ive really likedCleveland is a great, great city, and the rest areas off I-80 are among the cleanest, most pleasant Ive ever had reason to stop atbut I havent seen much. In the hopes of better understanding this most American (or, at least, this most electorally decisive) state, I figured Id 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 PollockGod, lets hope Ohio isnt really like this. This 2008 collection of short stories takes as its subject Knockemstiff, the southern Ohio town from which Pollock hails. (Yes, thats the towns 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 OConnor and Cormac McCarthy. (Hes also been compared to Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, and this, to my mind, is the betterand less laudatorycomparison.)Pollocks backwoods Ohio is filled with many unpleasant thingsincest and drug abuse, cussing and drinking, violence and more violence. And its filled with a host of even more unpleasant characters, figures who make Sherwood Andersons grotesques from Winesburg, Ohio look like angels. Heck, they make Flannery OConnors grotesques look pretty mild, too. Theres 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. Theres 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. Theres 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 Pollocks 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. Im betting Obama and Romney wont be stopping by this part of the state in the days ahead.Take Shelter, dir. Jeff NicholsTake Shelter is set in Elyria, Ohio (which, oddly enough, was the subject of a recent series of articlesin 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 hes 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. Its 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 Curtiss 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 Curtiss visions. For director Jeff Nichols, Ohio cant quite hold out against the apocalypse, but it does as good a job as we could imagine.Bloodbuzz Ohio, the NationalThis song comes from the Nationals 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 dont love it, our first home seems to have some gravitational pull that brings us back to itto lick old wounds, to remember old hurts, to despair about the future. I was carried / To Ohio in a swarm of bees, Beringer sings, Ill never marry / But Ohio dont remember me.Among the songs 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 wont affect the instability and despair that have rotted through the system. The song ends with the repeated lines, Im on a blood buzz, / Yes I am, / Im on a blood buzz, / Im on a blood buzz, / God I am, / Im on a blood buzz. Things vibrate in Ohiowith 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 havent 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, Im the new blue blood. Im 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. 

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. His book on poetry and theology in the modernist period is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.



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An honorary Ohioan by marriage, I'd like to offer the following contemporary works for consideration: Writer Dan Chaon, Nebraksan by birth, sets a number of his stories in the collections "Among the Missing" and "Stay Awake" in the greater Cleveland area: novelist Harvey Pekar's posthumously published ode to Cleveland looks at the evolution of the city from the middle half of the 20th century to the early 21st: Dave Hill's memoir "Tasteful Nudes" recounts, among many other things, growing up in suburban Cleveland. Cleveland is different from Columbus or Cincinnati or Dayton or Twinsburg. As you suggest, there may not be any single work that could provide insight into the state as a whole.

God, Anthony, if that's the best you can do for Ohio, you ought not to have tried at all. With respect.

Ohio has no big cities like those in the blue states. Cleveland and Cincinnati are remnants of big cities, but that's not the same thing. Cleveland is knee-jerk Democrat and Cincinnati is knee-jerk Republican. The rest of the state is up for grabs. Columbus, for example, seems to me pretty anti-ideological.I can't imagine that there's anything unique about Ohio. Many other states must be demographically similar: ordinary folk uncontaminated by the abnormal stresses caused by the pressure-cooker life in congested - "big" - cities. To Commonwealers, congested and stressed out seems normal, but to the rest of us, it seems decidedly abnormal. One thing very different about America is all the available space. Generally speaking, people who can leave congestion do so. People who flock to Los Angeles and New York do so more or less out of necessity - the extremes of poverty and money - and not out of hopeful choice. I'd sympathize with the desire to live where life is constantly on the boil, but from what I saw of midtown Manhattan a few years ago, the boil is all business; Manhattan shuts down at night just like Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Chillicothe, Ohio has one very fabulous thing: the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park which has what's left of the mounds built by the Moundbuilders a couple of thousand years ago. We drove along US 50 one Summer and that was one of the more interesting stops.

Dawn Powell was on to something. The singer/songwriter John Gorka puts it this way:I'm from New JerseyIt's not like TexasThere is no mysteryI can't pretendI'm from New JerseyIt's like OhioBut even more soImagine that

"Manhattan shuts down at night just like Cleveland and Cincinnati."Maybe the financial district, but not the rest of the City. I'm always amused when I'm on the subway late at night and its just as crowded and has the same energy as it does at 10:00 am.

"but from what I saw of midtown Manhattan a few years ago, the boil is all business; Manhattan shuts down at night just like Cleveland and Cincinnati."Well, yes, that's Midtown, and I'd like to believe that even you have the sense to realize that that still leaves freakin' uptown and downtown.

David S.--You're the Joe Btfplsk! of dotCommonweal. He was a character in the comic trip Lil' Abner who had his own little black cloud over his head that was always raining on him, so for him there was no such thing as a good day, nor a good anything. Sigh.

Ann, that's Btfsplk: was dangerous. Oppositional is harmless.Abe, tell me more about updown and downtown. I'd really, really like to like New York City, but Manhattan - with the possible exception of places like Washington Heights, which I only caught a glimpse of - seemed pretty depressing. I was obliged to buy a sandwich in MacDonald's to use the rest room, for example. That is not nice. And the only Starbucks I could find open at one or two in the morning was crowded and dirty. And a famous big used bookstore was a big letdown. What's to like?

David, I suspect that you'd most like laying down and dying.

Thanks, Abe. You're a prince.

David, I like things. Things may refer to anything from books to movies to bands. If someone writes something interesting about something I like, I am glad; depending on time, I may even contribute some thoughts. If someone writes something about stuff I dislike, the interest level can be the same (most of the bands that Verdicts writers writer about suck*), and I may or may not write something all the same. Maybe I'll say something of substance, maybe I'll be snarky (it's the internet, after all). But all that you do is shit on everything. I can't tell if you're just a troll, or if this is just the way you are.* And by "suck," I mean suuuuuuuuuuuucccccccckkkkkkkkkk! But not the National. They actually don't suck.

In the interest of keeping the peace--and please, let's keep this peaceful--I'm sorry you didn't like the post, David. I certainly didn't think looking at a novel, movie, and song explained Ohio fully (hence the joking claim that this was going to be a scientific analysis). But I did have fun writing this, and I thought other people might be interested in hearing how Ohio is depicted in popular culture.Anyway, I think we can all agree that, as you say, Ohio is like several other states, demographically and politically. It's just a freak of the electoral process that it seems to have so much sway every four years.

That song Bloodbuzz Ohio seems to be on our Bronx public radio station a lot.I think every place is very different actually. I hardly know Ohio, but found lots to like. Cedar Point Amusement Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park (though several people I met there were oddly proud of having, they claimed, the worst weather in the country).The White Turkey Drive In in Conneaut, OH, has the best turkey sandwiches. And whoever heard of a drive-in that specializes in turkey sandwiches?And how can you not like a place that is the source of inspiration for WKRP in Cincinnati?If I can think of lots I like about it, people from there must be able to generate a huge list. I wonder what is the best time of year to visit, though.

Irene, though I grew up in Columbus and have lived in Cincinnati for the past ten years, I don't know enough about Ohio to play tourist guide. As everywhere, there are places here well worth spending time in and pleasant and stimulating people to meet. Columbus was probably selected as state capital because of its central location and is topographically undramatic, but it has a great metro park system and a very large land-grant university as well as quite a few smaller universities (among which are a Dominican school and a Pontifical seminary). Last I heard, it's the only city in this rust-belt state that continues to grow. Lovely place to raise a family but not a tourist destination.Cincinnati, in the southwest corner of the state, was an important American city in the nineteenth century. It was supplanted by Chicago, though, and has been shrinking in the shadows since. Its population, once close to a million, has, due to a failure to annex, shrunk to below four hundred thousand. A few areas outside the city are thriving. There seems to be a great deal of private wealth here. Because of the topology, hilly and on a large river, there are many parks. Because of its important past, there are some places of historical interest. There's a large state university, the University of Cincinnati, which has an interesting collection of modern architecture, and there are three Catholic schools, Xavier, Mt. St. Joseph, and a Catholic seminary.Cleveland, in the northeast, which like Cincinnati fsiled to annex, is small and, like Cincinnati, has fallen on hard times, but the Cleveland area is the state's largest population center, at about two million (the Cincinnati and Columbus areas are about a million each). My wife is from Cleveland, but though I've visited there, I know little about it. It's located on the Great Lakes and its climate is considerably colder than Columbus or Cincinnati. It's the home of the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Orchestra used to be rated among the country's finest.It's fashionable for people on the political left - who seem to be concentrated in the country's large northeastern and western cities - to look down their noses at the rest of the country for its lack of what they understand to be intelligence and enlightened sophistication, so almost all of Ohio generally is considered beneath notice, if not beneath contempt. There was a truly nasty piece about Columbus a week or two ago in the New Republic.Best times of the year to visit? Any time but winter. Reasons to visit? I don't know. There are no major tourist draws. Once you're here, though, there's plenty to enjoy. I'm still, ten years in, finding pleasant surprises in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, across the river. I'm writing this from the reading room of the main Boone County, Kentucky, library, probably the most beautiful library I've ever had the pleasure to see.

Let it be known that the Cleve has one of the best breweries in the United States: Great Lakes. If you see their stuff, buy it.

There are more than three cities in Ohio, and it is unfair to judge Ohio without considering Youngstown, Dayton and Toledo, just to mention a few of the larger cities. Youngstown is home to Youngstown State University, WORLD famed Butler Art Institute and WORLD famed Mill Creek Park. (can you guess where I came from?)I have spent some little time in Dayton & Toledo, but not enough to give you the highlights that I can of Youngstown.Youngstown is beginning to rise from the ashes left by the collapse of the steel industry (4th in the nation of steel producing cities). I have lived in the south pacific, northeastern USA, west TX, LA, MO, and southern IL... Youngstown is still my home! So, please don't sum up Ohio with just three cities that are not necessarily representative of out state.

You're right. Ohio has about eleven million souls, of whom only about half live in the three C's. A lot also live in the countryside, from which both my parents came - the farmers' fields and the coal mines and the very small towns like Hallsville and Nelsonville and New Lexington and Bremen and Logan and Sugar Creek and Laurelville and the larger small towns like Lancaster and Mansfield and Circleville. Forget "world famous", though, or even "famous". What matters most in most places is what your neighbors think.

And some huge number of astronauts came from Ohio (including Neil Armstrong & John Glenn), which is very cool.

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