As a literary landscape, the small Midwestern town often serves as a backdrop for cautious family dramas, in which quiet people living quiet lives have quiet epiphanies. But anyone who sat with bated breath on November 2 can attest that the Midwest—Ohio in particular—is much more fractured and inscrutable than many of us imagine. As if in homage to the 2004 election, Adrienne Miller, the literary editor of Esquire, presents The Coast of Akron
, a debut novel that gives the heartland its fictional due. Her Akron is a place of flamboyant personalities, grand delusions, and poisonous ambition. And with two narcissistic dads, a shattered mom, and a daughter recklessly adrift, the family at the center of Miller’s novel is anything but quiet.
The paterfamilias of this clan is Lowell Haven, a character who appears more on canvas than in person. Think of him as a cross between Andy Warhol, Yves Saint Laurent, and a good old-fashioned con ma
n: a brilliant mythologizer but talentless artist who has turned his beautiful, androgynous genetics into a career by manipulating his former wife into painting costumed portraits of him, which he passes off as his own work. These portraits—Lowell posed as Richard III, the Wife of Bath, and a series of “literary syphilitics”—have earned him a toehold in the canon of contemporary art as a “semi-sem
ifamous artist” who parodies self-indulgence. His benefactor-cum-lover Fergus remarks dryly, “There are some university courses that devote at least a third of one class to his work.”
Lowell’s other legacy is the ruinous family that narrates his path of destruction through all manner of literary devices, including flashbacks, journals, and even magazine profiles. His first victim was Jenny, the literally self-effacing artist whose ambition disappeared into her husband. Lowell’s current partner is Fergus, a status-obsessed,
Kahlúa-soaked sap whose life’s work was erecting, in the middle of the rust belt, a faux Tudor mansion replete with crest of arms, suits of armor, and a motto (“On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul,” “One Cannot Live Alone”), and who is now trapped in his own monstrosity. Lowell’s daughter, Merit, is meanwhile starving herself of attention (her father’s narcotic of choice) in a marriage to an engineer obsessed with his house’s motion-activated lighting system.
They are a family set on the edge, and Miller tracks their fall: Fergus into sheer delusion and Merit into an office affair so imprudent it puts Bill Clinton to shame. Though Miller skewers and satirizes her characters (Merit’s lover is a braces-wearing subordinate whose only redeeming quality, it seems, is a vintage Iron Maiden T-shirt), she does it with much sympathy. Even at his most repellent, Fergus retains an irresistibly mordant sense of humor, usually aimed at his partner’s hangers-on. Upon seeing a female suitor of Lowell’s, he muses, “Somewhere in the dark corners of Eastern Europe there existed a prostitute who wondered who’d stolen her miniskirt.”
At Esquire, Miller has published the work of writers such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Aleksandar Hemon. Like these writers, she has created a big, brashly ambitious novel that does not deal in half-measures. She takes on sexuality, gender roles, art, celebrity, the pathos of the Midwest, and the banality of glossy mags. She gives her readers ample opportunity to play analyst to her shattered characters. At times one wishes they would get off the couch so any one of these grand themes could receive more focused attention, and perhaps even a little resolution. But she’s more concerned with tracing her characters’ mental dissolution than with constructing a compelling plot, and the novel’s conclusion is deeply unsatisfying.
At its heart, The Coast of Akron explores the basic desire to be singular. In Miller’s novel, status can be purchased (in the form of a massive Tudor), wealth inherited, and art faked. But true prestige is harder to achieve. For Lowell this means celebrity, his image worshipped ad infinitum
; for Merit, it’s the simple recognition that she might be distinguished as someone who is “rare and alone.” As different as they are, Lowell and his daughter are both desperate to be noticed in a deeply unnoticeable city.
The novel’s final, silent character is Miller’s own hometown of Akron. It’s a city where awkward office parties are held in strip mall Chinese restaurants, and where the guy doing squats in the corner of the gym is a former high school classmate. The most memorable and outrageous of Miller’s cast embrace this insipid, small-town setting even as they disdain it. They’re willing to paint large on the small canvas of their city. Describing the artistic salon of “amusing” people that Lowell has convened at On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul
, Fergus dryly notes that visitors come from miles around, “from Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Gambier, Dayton, Sandusky (but never Cincinnati; NB: Cincinnati
never).” In a city with no definite borders and no coasts, inhabitants have to create their own edges and determine their own personalities. It’s a risky, even existential proposition. The results, like the novel itself, can be both erratic and spectacular.