Earlier this week, Kim Brooks divulged the little-known American history of World War II before Pearl Harbor, which inspired her novel The Houseguest. Kim is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a man who had seen my novel advertised in a bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Dear Kim,” he wrote. “I have not read The Houseguest yet. But I was wondering — how did Utica get selected as a location in the book? My first wife’s grandfather, Barney Levitt, who came from the Ukraine around 1918, ran a scrap yard and hardware store called Barney Levitt & Sons in nearby Rome with his sons Sonny, Billy, and Joe Levitt. Sonny and Billy lived in Utica, and Joe, my late father-in-law lived in Clinton. The big scrap yard in Utica was Kowalsky’s, which was founded in 1916. Empire Scrap is now Empire Recycling and run by my friend Steven Kowalsky.”
This message delighted me, though I knew nothing of Barney Levitt & Sons or Kowalski’s scrap yard, enterprises on which the junk yard of my protagonist, Abe Auer, might have easily been based. It delighted me because it suggested that the strange intuition I’d followed in setting parts of my novel in Utica, New York, was based on something, if not factually, then emotionally true.
The emotion or impulse that led me to this unlikely setting arose, like so much of my fiction, from barely-remembered childhood memories. My father and both his parents were born and raised in Utica, a town that could not be more different from the one where I grew up — a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, the heart of the Sun Belt, the sort of city that sucked the economic life from places like Utica. Once or twice each year, I’d visit my grandmother there. We’d visit the zoo, take a tour of the old brewery where kids could get root beer floats, visit the various parks. Sometimes we’d visit the downtown, a stretch on Lafayette Street where daily trains had once arrived at the main rail station, where people had once eaten and shopped at Woolworth’s and The Boston Store, where visitors had lodged in the shabbily elegant Hotel Utica. Now, the old buildings were mostly closed, the sidewalks empty. And yet still it seemed a beautiful, small, quintessentially American place.
The summers I spent visiting my grandmother there remain among my fondest childhood memories, despite — or maybe because of — the fact that I was so struck, even as a child, by the haunted, abandoned aura that hung over the town. The rural suburb of my Virginia home had been literally built on a swamp. It sprung from the inspiration of a seventies developer: woodland-cleared, reservoir-filled, a few thousand single-family homes plopped down as quickly and as economically as possible in a location where there was nowhere to go and nothing to see and nothing to do without a car. It was a place without history, or rather, a place that existed completely outside of the history of the land on which it sat. Utica, by contrast, seemed to exist almost entirely in the past. Like so many Rust Belt cities, it felt not so much like a living, breathing place as a remnant of the community it had once been, a shell of a turn-of-the-century textile boomtown. I suppose this ghostly quality penetrated my subconscious. It lurked and shifted and re-emerged, eventually making Utica seem like the correct setting to begin a novel that is largely about what it means to hold onto or let go of the past, how it feels to abandon and to be abandoned.
Kim Brooks, the personal essays editor at Salon, is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She has been awarded fellowships by the Michener-Copernicus Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Posen Foundation. Her stories have been published in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals; she has received four honorable mentions in the Best American Short Stories series. Her essays have appeared in Salon, New York, and Buzzfeed. Her memoir Small Animals (Flatiron/Macmillan) is forthcoming in 2017. The Houseguest is her first novel.Setting a Story in the Shell of a Rust Belt Boomtown