Is it possible to warmly recommend a book that you’ve read in a state of near-constant exasperation, tempted sometimes to chuck it across the room (but unwilling to do that because it is so handsomely made)? Can this be done without talking out of both sides of your mouth? Yes, it can, and I’m about to do so, recommending that you buy a copy of Phil Christman’s Midwest Futures (best to get it directly from the excellent Belt Publishing) and read it at the first opportunity.
I was born in California, as was my wife, Wendy, and we lived in that state for most of our lives until (at the age of 46) we moved to Wheaton, Illinois, in 1994. We never expected to live in this part of the country, but we quickly came to love it (insofar as you can ever be said to love any place of human habitation, with its mix of good and evil, its tangled history and ever-shifting present, its quotidian joys and sorrows). After so many years of reading about and hearing about and seeing images of “the Midwest,” here we were.
More than 25 years later, I know the region much better than I did when we arrived (me on my own, at first, and then Wendy and three of our four kids, a couple of months later). But I will never arrive at a definitive grasp of “the Midwest,” what it is and what is said about it and its denizens (insofar as those can be meaningfully distinguished). Nor will anyone else, not even a vast team of experts. This doesn’t in the least discourage me from seeking out accounts of this place and the people herein, accounts fictional and non-, poetic and prosaic, personal and impersonal, particularly when they are the work of writers I’ve already come to admire, such as Christman. Nor am I at all surprised when their Midwests are quite different from mine, while overlapping here and there.
Midwest Futures is short (we need more sharp short books like this one), cunningly constructed while seemingly casual, rich with strange lore, and heavy on nudges to the reader, who is presumed to have a black belt in political correctness. One way to think of the book (though this is too narrow a description) is as an alternative account of American history, centered in the Midwest, in which the USA, rather than exemplifying the virtues trumpeted in the idealized textbook accounts I encountered as a boy in the 1950s, figures as the global locus of evil, a hellish empire built on exploitation, genocide, racism, sexism, homophobia, and heedless destruction of the environment, all in the service of insatiable capitalism. For readers who think that this currently fashionable account is as inadequate as the old one (now yearned for by the MAGA crowd), this will be a trial, but page by page Christman will reward your attention; I learned a lot from Midwest Futures. And readers who see things more or less as Christman does—particularly just now—will be cheering him on.
I was struck by this passage late in the book (pp. 125-126):
This apocalyptic time into which we have been born is also a time that gives us a power never enjoyed by anyone in history. Unlike someone living in 1910, with two horrendous wars still ahead, we know, with great precision, what is coming; and we know that though we can’t stop all of it, that every bit we do stop, or delay, or mitigate, represents millions of people saved. No other generation has been afforded such a scope for consciously doing good.
I read this passage three times, wondering to what extent it represents Christman’s everyday sense of our common life at this moment—wondering too how widely it is shared. I am not what gets called a “climate-change denialist”; not at all. I’m one of the “middle-of-the-road” types explicitly criticized in Midwest Futures. Ah, well. Read the book yourself, and let me know what you think of it.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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