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Review: Why do Americans idolize dumb Big Men? A delightful new spoof of the Tall Tale

Book jacket for “Cuyahoga” by Pete Beatty
(Scribner)

On the Shelf

Cuyahoga

By Pete Beatty
Scribner: 272 pages, $27

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Who made America? Men made America. Big men. Men like Pecos Bill, who could tame a mountain lion and make a lasso out of a rattlesnake. Or Paul Bunyan, who felled entire forests with one mighty swing of his ax and carved the Grand Canyon by dragging his giant pick behind him.

Needless to say it’s false. Folklore, fakelore, tall tales. Not just the literal facts but the Great Man spirit of Manifest Destiny. And yet America has never quite shaken its admiration for stories about manly men with the power to conquer and tame a lawless land. Recent polling suggests that about 40% of U.S. registered voters remain keen on the concept of a macho, I-alone-can-fix-it folk hero bringing law and order to a wild country. We can recognize the ridiculousness of folk tales, by they have a way of worming into our national narrative infrastructure.

Pete Beatty’s very funny, rambunctious debut novel, “Cuyahoga,” is not a Trump-era allegory. It could be read with pleasure in 2002, or 1950. Or 1837, when most of it is set. It’s a satire of tall tales, but not a distant, too-cool treatment. Beatty, a Cleveland-area native, deeply inhabits the tone and style of the form, paying sidelong homage to an essential American genre. He knows that we needed these big guys to rationalize Americans’ headlong urge to press forward, consequences be damned.

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It’s also just a hoot of a tale about a man who reputedly “drank a barrel of whiskey and belched fire.” Big Son comes straight from tall-tale central casting, possessing “shoulders wide as ox yokes,” according to the narrator, his brother Medium Son, or Meed. “A waist trim as a sleek schooner. Muscles curlicued like rich man’s furniture.” Big has single-handedly cleared the forest west of the Cuyahoga River and south of Lake Erie, establishing Ohio City as a rival to the budding metropolis of Cleveland to the east. It’s thankless work. He’d like to be paid for his labors, but money is scarce. And alas, his feats fail to win the heart of Cloe, a woman “as pretty as Big were strong.”

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The plot turns on a plan to construct a bridge across the Cuyahoga. Clevelanders see an opportunity for expansion, but Ohio City residents fear the span will siphon off business and force the communities to merge. Nativist suspicion of Clevelanders escalates, and the bridge soon becomes a target of sabotage, with Big recruited to repair the damage. Meed reports that some residents would rather the bridge remain half-exploded, using the wisdom of a cockeyed Solomon. “If half the bridge belonged to Ohio [City], then Ohio [City] had the right to half-destroy the bridge. Cleveland could do with their half how they liked.”

Pete Beatty, author of the debut novel “Cuyahoga.”
Pete Beatty, author of the debut novel “Cuyahoga.”
(Pete Beatty)
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That folksy tone comes straight out of Twain. Beatty’s style in the novel is what you might call Modified Huck: Grammatically concussed but knowing and down to earth. Beatty’s sentences in this mode are homespun and lyrical, without coming off as hokum: “I drank down a gulp of autumn air and looked through my brains for what I ought to do” Or: “The whole assembly went quiet with the work of believing their eyes.” Describing Big’s accomplishments, he rattles a run-on sentence like he’s speaking in tongues: “lied to the devil—stalked the deepest woods—hogtied panthers—drained jugs—got stung by one thousand hornets and only smiled.”

The mytho-rustic tone of “Cuyahoga” is its own pleasure, but it’s also essential to the story. To remunerate Big and shore up the notion of Ohio City’s greatness, Meed is recruited to write an almanac that will detail Big’s accomplishments, most of them wildly fanciful (“Climbed to heaven and dared Christ to a rastle”). With Big’s reputation preceding itself, Beatty sets the stage for a climax that requires Big to prove his mettle — to conquer the river and Cloe’s affections.

“Cuyahoga” is as fun as any well-told campfire tale, all the more so for having few rivals. There is a touch of George Saunders’ limber satire, and some of the grit of other Ohio-bred writers obsessed with folklore and myth — William H. Gass’ “Omensetter’s Luck,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Donald Ray Pollock’s “The Devil All the Time.” But none of these wrote tall tales, which present a particular challenge to a novelist: They allow the writer to be freewheeling but don’t leave much room for the reader’s empathy.

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Big is more myth than person, so he becomes hard to get a grip on. Meed suggests that there’s a moral in Big’s origin story (he discovered his might after he was kicked in the head by a horse). “We cannot live without gobbling up the world — taking its trouble into our bones and flesh — a kick will bust the trouble loose,” he writes. How should we feel toward a hero whose defining feature is getting kicked in the head? Admiring? Pitying?

But there’s another suggestion in the line: Perhaps we put a little too much stock in heroes who are defined by their kicked-in-the-head-ed-ness. Meed is an unreliable narrator on behalf on behalf of an unbelievable character. He spins a lot of lies in the name of progress, independence and civic pride, and Ohio City’s anxiety over Cleveland is largely a phantom. Clevelanders, Meed reports, “look the same and generally act the same. The only difference is that Clevelanders are wrong all over.”

“Cuyahoga” covers a particular moment in history as well as a wide swath of America’s historical consciousness. “Every age and place has got its Big Sons,” Beatty writes. “Folks who hang the sky that we shelter under. Stand up the timbers of a place.” A healthy society might stand to be more skeptical of the myth-making that creates such figures. But in the society we have, they endure, and Beatty wrings absurd and serious pleasure from them. “Let us have tenderness but also a dash of cussedness and tragedy,” Meed promises early on. He delivers.

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Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”


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