Midwestern Urban Fiction: Great novels that exemplify the industrialized cities of the U.S. Midwest?
November 3, 2010 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Midwestern Urban Fiction: What are the great novels that exemplify or characterize (as opposed to "are set in") any of the industrialized cities of the U.S. Midwest (St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, the Twin Cities, etc.)?

I'm a reader, but I'm no great student of literature. It strikes me that most anyone can reel off a list of seminal Southern/New England/American West/etc. novels; but I can't for the life of me think of much of anything urban and Midwestern past "The Jungle". Surely this is my ignorance; there must be a ton of fantastic novels that I am overlooking.

I usually like mid-20th century and later stuff, but for this question era is not very important to me. I am placing very high importance on novels that are not only set in the Midwestern cities mentioned, but that feature them extensively and explore or characterize them in ways deeper than occasional dashes of "local color". I'm interested in cities like: St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Cincinati, Cleveland, Omaha, and others.

Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with me. I look forward to reading some of your recommendations.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Sara Paretsky's crime novels are built around the city of Chicago, its residents, and its politics. I'd say it's on par with what I think of as "southern fiction" in terms of the necessity of the specific place and time to the story.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:06 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Then We Came to the End"-- Joshua Ferris.

"Decades removed from the stockyards and miles from any prairie, this funny, harrowing novel about the economic downturn that hits a Chicago advertising firm in the late 1990s shows the new Midwest: wired, worldly and scared to death."

In fact, there's a whole Dictionary of Midwestern Literature.

Mr. and Mrs Bridge by Evan Connell, who's one of my favorite authors.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:11 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like Wonder Boys. Takes me back to Pittsburgh, as someone who lived there. If you'll count 'the burgh as a Midwestern city, it might do the trick.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 11:12 AM on November 3, 2010

Nelson Algren. Not fiction, but A. J. Liebling's takedown of Chicago (Chicago: The Second City) is so spot-on that they're still taking it personally here fifty years later.

Chris Ware's stuff seems very, very Midwestern to me.
posted by enn at 11:15 AM on November 3, 2010

The Devil in the White City is historical fiction about a real-life murderer around the Chicago World's Fair. It's also about the building of the world's fair. It's a great read.
posted by wayland at 11:16 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow are two great Chicago novels. Native Son by Richard Wright may be the great Chicago novel.

Fathers and Family by Herbert Gold are two great Cleveland novels.

Donald Goines wrote some pretty astonishing novels about Detroit.

Ellen Hart and John Sandford have written mysteries with strong Twin Cities settings. Emma Bull's War for the Oaks is a very influential urban fantasy set in the Twin Cities.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:21 AM on November 3, 2010

The Corrections is set both in the real New York and a thinly fictionalized St. Louis, and the cities' characters are pretty relevant to the novel.
posted by lisa g at 11:25 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mr. and Mrs Bridge by Evan Connell

Seconded, though the order should be Mrs. and Mr. Bridge.

Saul Bellow's Chicago stuff, of course. I never cared much for Augie March, so I'll suggest Humboldt's Gift, which is mostly set in Chicago and contains much philosophizing about the city if I remember right.
posted by otio at 11:34 AM on November 3, 2010

and Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer is one of my all-time favorite novels. It's set in a slightly fictionalized Ohio city, from post Civil War to early 20th century. It's so good that, at 1100 pages, it's tragically short.
posted by Corvid at 11:46 AM on November 3, 2010

Not novels per-se, but Stuart Dybek's stories capture Chicago remarkably well. One collection, "I Sailed with Magellan" is the most novel-like (the stories are interrelated), but "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods" and "The Coast of Chicago" both contain great gems.

Also, while I won't hold it up as a great novel, Scott Simon's "Windy City" really nails a certain feel of the city and its politics.
posted by j-dawg at 11:50 AM on November 3, 2010

The Corrections is set both in the real New York and a thinly fictionalized St. Louis, and the cities' characters are pretty relevant to the novel.

Franzen's Twenty-Seventh City is also set in St. Louis.
posted by ewiar at 11:54 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chris Ware's graphic novel "Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy on Earth" is set in and around Chicago, both in the turn of century (for the flashback sequences) and at the present.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Man With The Golden Arm looks at drunken/junky Chicago just after WWII
posted by abirae at 12:22 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Them by Joyce Carol Oates is the book that comes to mind when I think about Detroit.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 12:23 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides characterizes Detroit pretty well.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:35 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

... speaking of post-war Chicago, Walter Tevis's The Hustler definitely features it as more than just a convenient location.

great read.
posted by philip-random at 12:59 PM on November 3, 2010

Dean Doolittle's crime fiction doesn't take place in big cities (I think one of his novels takes place in Omaha, with Chicago always looming just off the page), but as someone from the Midwest, I see a lot of similarities in the places where I grew up with the cities he writes about.

And I am breaking the rules here, but upon rereading The Great Gatsby, I realized what a powerfully Midwestern novel it is--all the characters of from west of Chicago, and even though the story takes places in New York, they never really leave their Midwesterness behind. This Side of Paradise as well.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 1:07 PM on November 3, 2010

Crooked River Burrning is an interesting look at mid-century Cleveland; I think it tracks from 1940-1969 or so.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:22 PM on November 3, 2010

Was popping in to recommend Them by Joyce Carol Oates. I'll also say that, while I haven't read Middlesex, I was sitting next to someone on the subway who was, and I accidentally glanced at like 2 sentences over her shoulder and was totally sucked in. I mean, like, to the point of contorting myself to see what book this was and even contemplating getting off the train right there and then to go buy a copy.

I am also sad to discover, after googling, that The Deer Hunter is not based on a novel. I had the notion that it was and was also going to recommend that. So, anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on November 3, 2010

Second Sister Carrie, Native Son and The Devil in the White City
posted by Alexdan4 at 2:04 PM on November 3, 2010

I was coming here to recommend The Corrections, and definitely second/third Middlesex - a friend of mine from Detroit says it's beautifully spot-on. (As well as an excellent story all around.)
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 2:42 PM on November 3, 2010

I don't know that this counts as "great" or if it goes as deep into its Midwestern-ness as you might be expecting, but I really love David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, which is set in a (fictionalized/futuristic) Cleveland and feels very Midwestern to me.
posted by naoko at 4:21 PM on November 3, 2010

sinclair lewis's babbitt is a bit earlier than what you're looking for (1922), and it's set in a sort of "midwest everycity" rather than a specific one, but it's a great read and certainly aims to capture the character of the city and its denizens in a gestalt way.
posted by countingaugust at 5:01 PM on November 3, 2010

Henry B Fuller's With the Procession.
posted by dizziest at 7:14 AM on November 4, 2010

Jennifer Egan's "Look at Me" has two settings, Rockford, IL and NYC. The bits about Rockford are great and the characters are engaged in the city's industrial farming history. That sounds dry but Egan tells a funny and complex story about identity.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 5:27 AM on November 11, 2010

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