Shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing
From a striking talent with keen powers of observation comes this evocation of an eccentric family’s tangled connections—between themselves, an unlikely cast of locals, and a seldom-documented urban Iowa, one not of cows and cornstalks but of thrift stores, TV dinners, and bridges spanning the muddy sprawl of the Mississippi River.
By turns uplifting and harrowing, Ben Miller’s prose portrays a boy’s quest to make his life more than the sum of its worst moments in a chaotic household. The tableau revealed is endearingly adrift in time—an inventor’s dream of selling America on a mail-order ice rink, the neighbors whose prodigious cookouts have the gravitas of Greek drama, and the aspiring misfit writers who meet to quote The Elements of Style over Pall Malls in a riverside tenement. Through it all, Miller returns to his Virgil, neighbor Mr. Hickey, a bow-tie-clad widower who exhibits a beguiling power to bear losses without himself becoming lost. Together the unlikely duo forms an irrevocable bond, sipping Sanka and 7UP while tuning in to Muhammad Ali’s greatest matches or rooting for the beleaguered Cubs.
Miller has engulfed the reader in the saga of a family fragmenting, and in the plight of a city redefining its identity at the close of a century. As characters converge and alter each other, the narrative current sweeps us toward a reckoning with secrets guarded for far too long.
“Funny and beautifully crafted . . . Miller’s affecting chronicle reveals the often messy ways that families fall apart and the way that writing acts both as remembrance and redemption.” —Publishers Weekly
“What Miller presents is a kind of forgiveness, brave, heroic, and largely uncharted by male writers . . . he lends empathy and strength to a story that could otherwise be just one of victimhood.” —Foreword
“Miller’s memoir is gritty and well-told, an uncomfortable coming-of-age story that is as unique as it is universal.” —Wisconsin State Journal
“Melvillian in its packed facts, fascinating characters, stylistic virtuosity, and deep-diving ambition to understand destructive madness . . . a work that should be the gold standard for literary memoirs in the future.” —Tom LeClair, Daily Beast
“The author infuses the narrative fabric with a potion that elevates ordinariness to the level of Myth . . . this style, which at times has Joycean echoes, makes this memoir much more than a story of how to find the light at the end of the tunnel . . . [Miller is] one of the best contemporary Amercan writers.” —American Book Review
“A remarkable but challenging book . . . Miller has laid bare a universe of tween emotions, revealing the trusswork and power grids of his hometown.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Ben Miller’s prose is incandescent, bittersweet, and hilarious. Few writers have given more compelling voice to their memories of a particular place. The Great American Midwest will never look—or feel—the same.” —Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920
“Ben Miller’s writing has left a trail of clear and perfect images lasered permanently in my mind. His imagination is astounding in its breadth and detail, but it is the heart behind the words, the emotion he brings to the smallest moments, that makes me such an admirer of this writer and his work, and has me anxiously awaiting, and cheering for, the publication of River Bend Chronicle.” —Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
“Ben Miller seems not so much to write his sentences as dowse his way into them, following the subterranean logic of language and creating the amplitude of his completely unique America. His prose is, at once, fetchingly lyrical and deeply comic—comic in a way that is eyes-open to the tragic sense of life. Reading his essays, I feel disconcertingly—but also relievedly—human.” —Sven Birkerts, author of The Other Walk and The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age