Crooked River Burning

Crooked River Burning

by Mark Winegardner

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The critically acclaimed novel of a compelling love affair and the decline of a once prosperous city .

The birthplace of rock 'n' roll, Cleveland was an economic powerhouse and America's sixth-largest city in the late 1940s. By 1969, it had dropped to twelfth. In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks, the only way to make a living on his side of the city. Across the river is twelve-year-old Anne O'Connor, daughter of the reigning political boss of Cuyahoga County. In this richly entertaining novel, the two will meet and fall in love, and for twenty turbulent years, as Cleveland falls from grace, they will be consumed by a fiery, star-crossed romance. A natural-born storyteller, Mark Winegardner charts the demise of this fascinating city, artfully weaving in such real-life Clevelanders as Eliot Ness, Alan Freed, and Carl Stokes. A saga reminiscent of the best writing of E. L. Doctorow, Tom Wolfe, and John Dos Passos, Crooked River Burning is masterfully crafted and vastly entertaining-a great American novel in the truest sense.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156014229
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 03/01/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 588
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.46(d)

About the Author

Mark Winegardner is the author of the novel The Veracruz Blues and three books of nonfiction. A regular contributor to GQ, he has also published work in the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Esquire, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Doubletake, and other magazines. He is a professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


Tallahassee, Florida

Date of Birth:

November 24, 1961

Place of Birth:

Bryan, Ohio


B.A., Miami University, 1983; M.F.A., George Mason University, 1987

Read an Excerpt

On a hot, gray Wednesday in July, David Zielinsky had finished mowing his lawn and the lawn of his father's house next door, and was putting away the mower when his uncle pulled into the drive in his week-old car, a yellow 1949 Willys Jeepster. It looked like the result of a night of gin-provoked coitus between a runtish moving van and a ragtop Studebaker and was, David thought, the worst match of car to driver ever to hit the American road. Uncle Stan had been a Chicago cop, the short young balding one in that famous picture placing the cuffs on Capone, then Eliot Ness brought him to Cleveland, then Stan went to war and did things that Aunt Betty said he couldn't talk about so don't ask, then he came home and opened a one-man detective business and accepted the obligation of raising his nephew, his wife's sister's half-orphaned kid. A man like this, David thought, should drive a four-door Ford.
"Shower up, ace." Despite the threat of lake-effect rain, Stan got out and began, with due American efficiency, to put down the car's cream-colored top. "I'm buying you lunch." Stan Lychak was the kind of man it was hard to question. David felt brave asking where.

"Downtown," said Stan. "We're meeting someone. Maybe get a haircut, too, if you get a move on." He stroked his neatly trimmed silver mustache, took off his hat and ran his hands over his friar's fringe of hair. "Both of us. I'll get you back here in plenty of time." By which he meant David's paper route, the afternoon Cleveland Press.
Downtown was eight miles away, but David had crossed the Cuyahoga River only for school field trips, Christmas shopping, or Indians games—never, as far as he can remember, in a car. The streetcar was how you went, when you went,which was seldom. "Where downtown?" David was, he knew, pushing his luck.
"Place on Short Vincent Street."
"Who are we meeting?" David asked, already sure.
"It's a surprise," Stan said, which, to David's mind, cinched it: they were going to see David's father, Mike, a Short Vincent regular, who every couple weeks swung by the house next door to get his mail or sleep one off. David hadn't spoken to him in months.
David had of course never been to Short Vincent Street. It wasn't a place you took a kid. Aunt Betty called hello. She was on the front porch, reading Beowulf (she'd been taking night-school classes for years, toward a degree in no one knew what). Stan smiled and went to kiss her. They chortled, like kids going steady.
Then Stan returned to his car. "You still here?"
"I am," David said. "Listen, you want me to move back over there?" He pointed to his father's house, where David had not lived since he was four, and his mother left for Hollywood and drowned soon thereafter, and to which he did not even have a key. "I will if you want."
"What?" Stan furrowed his brow, shook his head. "Where'd you come up with that? Did you think that was what I meant?"
"Maybe." No.
They regarded one another. David was an all-elbows beanpole in cutoffs and Keds. Stan was a compact, guarded man who hadn't wanted children and seemed never to have been one. Once, for a trip to Euclid Beach Park, Stan wore brogans and a fat tie.
"Well?" Stan resumed the ministrations needed to transform his nutty car. "Shake a leg."
On the drive up Pearl Road, Stan tuned in a broadcast of the Cleveland Orchestra. At each stoplight, he turned the radio down; as he got underway again, he'd turn it back up, overtaxing the tinny dashboard speaker. "Ah, Finlandia," he said. "By the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Pride of the Finns."
As if David cared.
"Born I believe in 1865," Stan said at the next light. "Still living. Sadly neglected these days."
"Yes," Stan insisted. "Great."
"Did I say he wasn't?" Yes. Though you had to be impressed by a guy who was practically a hundred years old.
The light at the west-side foot of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge turned green. Ramrod stiff behind the wheel, Stan adjusted his hat for the upcoming wind, put his car into gear, and began the slow ascent up the bridge and over the river.
Flanking the road, on each corner of the bridge, were mammoth sandstone pylons, each carved into the shape of an impassive art-deco angel, each clutching what looked like a large toy to its breast: the one on the left a stagecoach, on the right a car, what looked like a 1930 Dodge. Stan pointed and, over the scratchy music and howling wind, yelled. "The Guardians of Traffic!"
David felt a pressure on his chest, which might have just been the wind off the lake and down the Cuyahoga Valley but felt like more. Everything, everywhere, was large. The limitless lake shimmering in the haze to the north. Closer, on Whiskey Island, were mountains of gravel and salt, and those monster-movie-insect Huletts that loaded and unloaded the freighters. And to the right, to the south! As far as the eye can see stretched a crooked valley: a tenebrous wonderland carpeted with smokestacks and tank farms, drawbridges, ore trains, and every stippled color of smoke and fire you could
Will you look at all the bridges! A Tinkertoy exposition of drawbridges, cranking every whichway, spinning andlifting, rotating and tilting, pitching and yawing: right, left; up, down.
Halfway across the mile-long bridge, higher than the track where the streetcars go, with nothing above him but thesky, and, David threw back his head and gave himself over to the wind. Even the sky looked too large to fit where the sky used to go!
Uncle Stan, hat securely in place, tapped him on the arm and winked. "Nice view, eh?" DaBefore them loomed two more sandstone angels, the one on the left holding a steam engine, the one on the right a
dumptruck. Beyond the bridge was a hobbled mess of truck docks and sooty brick food warehouses, and beyond that: Terminal Tower! The tallest building in the world, if you don't count New York City, and let's not. Fifty-two craggy, greenish, wedding-cake stories, rising and tapering toward the turreted spire. On top, an American flag. Below that, a Cleveland Indians flag.
Could it be a mistake? Isn't this an off-day, the day after the All-Star game?
"Indians flag," shouted Uncle Stan, pointing. "They fly it any time the Indians're home."
"No fooling."
Only as they were about to reach the eastern side, as bridge became road, did David think to look back at the river they'd crossed: the Cuyahoga, clotted with black freighters, kinked as a great beast's spilled intestine, glowing green and yellow. It was a beautiful damn thing.
Stan pulled into a parking lot just as the sun broke out and the orchestra played the brassy last bars of Finlandia. He turned off the car, turned the key, and they sat listening to the applause. The radio went to commercial. All he said was "outstanding." All David could think to say was, "yeah." He asked if Stan wanted help putting the top up. Stan assessed the sky. "No," he said. "I'll risk it."
It was the day after the All-Star game. The Indians were in first. Cleveland was no one's idea of a joke. An ex-cop felt okay about leaving his new car unlocked. The sun shone.
At least until you turned the corner onto Short Vincent, that dark 485-foot-long glorified alley.
"I thought it'd be bigger," David said.
"That," said Stan, "is how it usually goes."
Doormen and bellboys milled around under the canopy of the alarmingly medium-sized Hollenden Hotel. The nightclubs were open, but the music wouldn't start for hours. Two main restaurants, Kornman's and the Theatrical were normal-sized, with nondescript facades. There were no elephants or famous movie stars or flagpole sitters or Presidential motorcades; nothing that local lore or David's father had led him to expect. Just a dark 485-foot one-way street, westbound.
Stan checked his watch. They were of course early. "In here." He held open the door to Ciccia's Barber Shop. "Let's get our ears lowered."
David and his uncle took the last two seats, underneath a cobwebby moosehead sporting an Indians cap (black, red bill, wishbone C, no Wahoo). On the television set was a floor-fight in Philly, over a civil-rights plank in the Democratic platform.
In the middle of a workday, Ciccia's was full of cigar smoke and men, and the talk was full of what you'd think. Baseball. Mock despair over women. Lies about fish. The skinny from the touts and sharps about today's sure things. The word on what's what in City Hall, who's bent and straight at the C.P.D. The things the Press, the News, and The Plain Dealer knew about but wouldn't print. Plus the guy in the next barber chair could be anybody. Bill Veeck, say.
"Mr. Veeck," said the barber. "You're next."
David, the only kid in the place, stared as the Indians' owner, a young, curly-haired, sunburned ex-Marine, grappled with his metal crutches—he had a wooden leg—and, still chuckling over one of his own jokes, climbed into the chair. In 1948, to own the Indians was to own Cleveland. Give a snakeoil salesman single-malt to sell instead, and, as David's father would say, the world lines up to suck his dick.
"What about it, Billy?" called a monstrously fat man in a derby. "How long can it last?"
Already, David was thinking how he'd tell the story to his buddies in Old Brooklyn. He reached into his pocket, but there's nothing for Veeck to sign. Just some change and a comb.
"Should be a hell of a race," said Veeck. "Come out and see. Bring your wives."
"Shoes ain't got a wife," somebody said.
"Don't need one," said Shoes. "I got yours."
There was talk of who might catch Cleveland—the A's, the Red Sox, the evil Yankees. Someone asked Veeck about the Satchel Paige stunt.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Mark Winegardner, published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

The Sixth City: 1948-1952
The Seventh City: 1954-1960
The Eighth City: 1960-1964
The Twelfth City: 1965-1969
Epilogue Vincit Qui Patitur 556

What People are Saying About This

Jonathan Lethem

Wise, generous and slyly casual, Mark Winegardner's masterpiece of pure storytelling carves into the territory of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. It's Everything You (N)Ever Wanted to Know About Cleveland But Couldn't Guess Would Break Your Heart. It's a book to love.

Stewart O'Nan

Playful and vivid, Crooked River Burning is a crafty mix of the real and imaginary. In his patient laying out of the mysteries of Cleveland, Mark Winegardner shows not just a fleeting nostalgia for his city, but true love.

Robert Olen Butler

If Dublin can become the whole world in all its complexity, then so can Cleveland -- at least in the hands of Mark Winegardner, who has created, in Crooked River Burning, a remarkable novel giving this profoundly human city the transcendent radiance of art. This is a major work from one of our finest writers.

Reading Group Guide

1. The first chapter of a novel often acts as a rulebook for the reader, establishing character, tone, point-of-view, setting, thematic interests, and other narrative choices. What does Mark Winegardner establish in the opening chapter of Crooked River Burning? Are any of these "rules" broken later?

2. Early in the novel, the narrator asks, "How much of history-personal, national, cultural-does happen by whim and accident?" (p. 15) What is the novel's answer to this question? Based on personal experience, what is your own answer?

3. In the Alan Freed chapter "Blues for the Moondog", the narrator states: "Later, you will tell this story and therefore lie (the essential truth of storytelling, even if you stick to the facts: especially then)." (p. 46) What does this mean? How does the novel bear this idea out within its narrative?

4. In the third Local Heroes chapter, "The Anchorwoman's Tale," the narrator asks if Dorothy Fuldheim's fame remained local because she turned down an offer to go to New York. What is your answer to the narrator's posed question? New York, as idea and place, is a running reference in the novel. What role does it play? Is New York portrayed as villain or something more complex?

5. Each Local Hero chapter builds on the narrative techniques employed in the previous installment. As the book progresses, the voice, tone, use of footnotes, acknowledgment of myths, and even the tense change, morph and become more complicated, deeper, and multilayered. What does this strategy achieve?

6. How are David and Anne products of both their times and environments? In what ways do they singularly distinguish themselves from others of theirgeneration? How do the arcs of David and Anne's stories, both individually and merged, reflect the arc of Cleveland's story? Do the highs or lows of their lives coincide with or diverge from the highs and lows of the larger social climate?

7. Crooked River Burning employs both old-fashioned storytelling and new-fangled narrative techniques. How does the novel weld the best of the nineteenth-century novel (Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and so on) with the wry voice of contemporary literature?

8. In the Louie Seltzer Local Heroes chapter, the narrator poses this question: "If this wasn't what people wanted-a populist, crusading paper that asked the questions they wanted answered, that had the courage and the power to seek results, to get results-then why did your circulation skyrocket?" (p. 415) Is this an ironic or heartfelt question? How do a city's newspapers reflect or change its citizen's opinions? Does the term "local hero" carry the same connotation for Louie Seltzer as it does for Alan Freed, Dorothy Fuldheim, or Carl Stokes?

9. The culmination of many ideas raised about urban politics, as well as the coming together of several narratives, occurs in the chapter, "How to Get Elected by White People." Does this chapter also contain the climax of the novel itself? Why or why not?

10. Give examples of how baseball, that hallowed all-American sport, is used to comment on both the macrocosm of America and the microcosm of the specific city in which Crooked River Burning is set.

11. Are David and Anne local heroes? In literary tradition, a hero is presumed to have a tragic flaw that results in his or her downfall. Does David or Anne have such a flaw?

12. The author uses the narrative voice to contextualize the past. For example, in describing the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, in the late forties, the narrator says, "Political correctness will not arrive for forty years. You think Chief Wahoo is bad now, get a load of the vicious, big-nosed red-faced thing they used in the '40s." (p. 26) What are these asides trying to accomplish? Are they effective?

13. Through highly personalized stories, the novel continually returns to the relationship between black and white Clevelanders, which is tentative, segregated, and for the most part quiet-until the riots in Hough. Explore the ways in which Crooked River Burning portrays the changing face of race relations, both in Cleveland and throughout the country.

14. Our circles of community begin with family and extend outward in rings to include neighborhood, city, region, and so forth. How do elements in this first ring-family-determine David's and Anne's relationships to the outer rings of the world, both in terms of the families into which they are born as well as, in David's case, the families they chose to create?

15. What does the novel tell us about the imperfections of the American dream? About idealism? About the American cult of personality? Although the novel is set in Cleveland, and its events could not happen anywhere but in that metropolis on the North Coast of the country, its themes are universal. How does the novel transcend its boundaries to become a story about the Midwest, a story about America, a story about love?

Copyright (c) 2001. Published by Harcourt, Inc. The discussion questions were prepared by Angela Fasick.


A Conversation with Mark Winegardner

In his monthly Writer's Writers columns, contributing editor Mark Winegardner has profiled a veritable who's who of our finest contemporary authors -- with particular emphasis on those true "writer's writers" whose work deserves the attention of a broader audience. Whether singing the praises of short fiction from Andre Dubus and Ann Beattie or celebrating the novelistic endeavors of writers as brilliant and diverse as Frederick Busch and Jim Crace, Winegardner has consistently brought to each his signature wit, insight, and prickly humor as well as a craftsman's respect for the books and the authors he extols.

In the following interview, Greg Marrs talks to Mark Winegardner about his expansive and achingly human new novel, Crooked River Burning.

Barnes & Four years ago I asked you to write an essay for Barnes & on the perennial popularity of the baseball novel in American literature -- a topic that, as the author of The Veracruz Blues, you were singularly qualified to address. In that essay, you argued that such novels are rarely about baseball per se, yet also lamented your unenviable, newfound status as "the guy who wrote that baseball novel." Now, with Crooked River Burning, the love of the game is once again a central aspect of the story. How will you ever stop being the Baseball Guy if you keep this sort of thing up?

Mark Winegardner: You're right. It is a strange choice for someone who has gone on record about being sensitive about such a billing. It's my thesis that Cleveland is the quintessential Rust Belt city, yet on the other hand it is its own quirky self. The way this is true is embodied in its sports teams. Therefore the only way to tell Cleveland's story honestly -- at least from the 1920s on -- is through its sports teams. Although it may at first glance seem ludicrous, when Cleveland's teams have been successful, so has the town.

The book has its genesis in a story told to me by my friend Carl, who makes a brief cameo in Crooked River Burning, and who was actually at the game that Satchel Paige pitched. A simple beginning for a book that is so complex architecturally.

B& On the surface, Crooked River Burning is an absolute page-turner, but the underlying structure and multiple narrative approaches you've employed are astonishing.

MW: I know it sounds hopelessly complicated, but it certainly doesn't read that way. I'm proud of the complexity, but even more proud of its readability. I don't want anyone thinking, "Oh boy, that looks like one of those books that would be good for me." I've tried hard to have it both ways: a book that rewards the reader's attention without in any way slowing the story down.

If you're trying to tell a story that is a lot more than the sum of its parts, you have to pay attention to how accounts of central events differ. Chronological variances are one way of addressing that: David, Anne, and Alan Freed's versions of the Savoy rock concert are a prime illustration of that technique. With Crooked River Burning I wanted to create something that has the power of the linear read but with the narrative energy that makes you earn that payoff.

B& How did you become interested in Cleveland's history?

MW: I grew up in northwestern Ohio and went to school in southwestern Ohio. I moved to Cleveland in 1989 when I took a teaching position at John Carroll University. At first I had no feelings about the city at all. And so I was sort of surprised to gradually but deeply fall madly in love with the place. Cleveland just spoke to me.

I became fascinated by the ongoing story of Cleveland -- a story that most people living there don't even see. What I wanted to know was: How did Cleveland get to this place, come to this pass; how did it fall from its vital prewar status to the smoldering butt of a national joke? It's the only place I've ever lived that felt like home, and I certainly mean the book as a great big valentine to the city. As I hope I've conveyed in the novel, the thing about love is that you don't love someone or someplace in spite of their flaws but because of them.

B& In the novel you refer to an illustrious list of celebrities and accomplishments most people would not associate with Cleveland. Cleveland may not be first in the hearts of its countrymen as far as the rest of nation is concerned, but there have been a remarkable number of firsts for the city. What Cleveland firsts stand out for you?

MW: Well, Charles Dickens gets the dubious honor of inventing the "Cleveland Joke" during his visit in 1842. Hart Crane's father invented LifeSavers in Cleveland. Superman originated in Cleveland. Cleveland was the home of the first female TV news anchor -- Dorothy Fuldheim -- who, incidentally, introduced Joe DiMaggio to Marilyn Monroe at the Theatrical. Alan Freed not only invented rock 'n' roll radio in Cleveland but also gets the credit for staging what is now considered the first rock concert with his Moondog Coronation Ball at the Cleveland Arena. Carl Stokes was the first black mayor of a major American city. And, although I don't mention it in the book, I'll go on record here that it was Cleveland's 1996 bicentennial celebration that inspired me to propose to my wife.

The important thing to remember is that, despite reports to the contrary, the Cuyahoga was not the first river to burn. Cleveland always gets a bad rap on that.

B& It's inevitable that any story dealing with 20th-century Cleveland would have to mention the notorious murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard, but you take the historical record as a point of departure to explore a parallel murder mystery that unfolds throughout the lives of your central characters. Was this clever reworking of the Sheppard case just too inviting to pass up, or did you have some larger statement to make?

MW: This is one of the secret subplots of the book, and all I'll say is that the real mystery of both murders is in the facts. My own hunch is that Sheppard did not kill his wife, but I wouldn't bet on it.

B& Despite all the desiderata you've crammed into the book, from the intricate machinery of ward politics to the birth of rock 'n' roll, you certainly leave the impression that there's still a lot more to write about. Do you have plans to continue this story?

MW: Let's just say I'm not done with Cleveland.

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Crooked River Burning 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
AmeKole on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having grown up in Cleveland I found this book very interesting. I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise, but I'm glad I did. It kept me engaged until the end and I did care about the protagonists portrayed. I loved trying to pick out little details within that clearly illustrated that the author was from Cleveland.
mhgatti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winegardner matched history with fiction so perfectly that I kept wanting to Google the characters to see what they¿re up to now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a Clevelander, so a little biased, but this book is fantastic. The mix of history and a well-written love star-crossed love story set to the backdrop if Cleveland in its heyday is one of my favorite books.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I met Cleveland a few years ago while visiting my wife's family. This book has peeled back the layers of the history of the city and helped me to enjoy it as if I had been there all my life. What a page turner!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book brought me back to the NE Ohio I grew up in. It has everything- The Cleveland Indians, Union and Politics, and persons from the right and wrong side of the tracks. I lost track of time reading this one.