Longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel
“Cuyahoga is tragic and comic, hilarious and inventive—a 19th-century legend for 21st-century America” (The Boston Globe).
Big Son is a spirit of the times—the times being 1837. Behind his broad shoulders, shiny hair, and church-organ laugh, Big Son practically made Ohio City all by himself. The feats of this proto-superhero have earned him wonder and whiskey, but very little in the way of fortune. And without money, Big cannot become an honest husband to his beloved Cloe (who may or may not want to be his honest wife).
In pursuit of a steady wage, our hero hits the (dirt) streets of Ohio City and Cleveland, the twin towns racing to become the first great metropolis of the West. Their rivalry reaches a boil over the building of a bridge across the Cuyahoga River—and Big stumbles right into the kettle. The resulting misadventures involve elderly terrorists, infrastructure collapse, steamboat races, wild pigs, and multiple ruined weddings.
Narrating this “very funny, rambunctious debut novel” (Los Angeles Times) tale is Medium Son—known as Meed—apprentice coffin maker, almanac author, orphan, and the younger brother of Big. Meed finds himself swept up in the action, and he is forced to choose between brotherly love and his own ambitions. His uncanny voice—plain but profound, colloquial but poetic—elevates a slapstick frontier tale into a “breezy fable of empire, class, conquest, and ecocide” (The New York Times Book Review).
Evoking the Greek classics and the Bible alongside nods to Looney Tunes, Charles Portis, and Flannery O’Connor, Pete Beatty has written “a hilarious and moving exploration of family, home, and fate [and] you won’t read anything else like it this year” (BuzzFeed).
Beatty's inspired debut is an American tall tale in the 19th-century oral tradition. Living legend Big Son has wrestled forests and rivers into submission. But in Ohio City in 1837, he meets his greatest challenge to date when his true love, Cloe Inches, refuses to be his bride until he proves himself as a provider. He finds work building a bridge across the Cuyahoga River that will connect Cleveland with its rival, Ohio City. But after the bridge collapses, so, too, do Big Son's fortunes. It is up to his brother, Medium Son, called Meed, to restore his reputation by creating an almanac of Big Son's legendary feats. Meed, however, covets Cloe and is secretly jealous of the attention his older brother receives. Throw in a dandyish rival for Cloe's affection and a gunpowder-toting demonstrator, and the stage is set for the biggest Big Son tale of all time. Narrated by Meed in a colloquial voice (about Big: "I do believe I could make a decent merchant for him as a foremost spirit of the times"), Beatty's novel has echoes of Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown and Hugh Nissenson's The Tree of Life, employing language that thrusts the reader fully into the tumult of life on the American frontier. Like Big Son himself, this novel is an American original.