“A writer of nonfiction discovers their own authority by telling. The good essays tell. They pronounce. They manifesto. They ask and wonder and feint and layer.” So proclaims author Sonya Huber, in a few-years-old article for LitHub, about unlearning long-accepted rules of writing. Huber puts these proclamations into action in her forthcoming essay collection, Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook, out September 12 via Belt Publishing.
Though slim and unassuming, the 20 essays within pack a punch—not the sort that gives you an immediate bruise, but one that leaves you strangely sore for days, wondering what it was that hit you. The opener, “Flying the Flannel” deftly sets the scene, situating the reader in New Lenox, Illinois, Huber’s hometown. Located about 40 miles southwest of Chicago, just east of Joliet, Huber describes New Lenox as “deep in the corn grid of the Midwest.” But she’s not writing to cast aspersions on flyover country—she’s writing to pay homage to it. And not to a false version of the Rust Belt, but to the reality of it: the flatness, the monotony of the monoculture, the smokestacks and abandoned factories, the miles of highway.
Sonya Huber with Megan Stielstra
Sun 9/24 6:30 PM, Volumes Bookcafe, 1373 N. Milwaukee, free
“I’m drawn to places that look like they’ve been worn and used,” Huber says. “I have great affection for them.” People from the midwest seem to have a different aesthetic, she says, one that is “pleased with subtlety.” In the midwest, “Sometimes there’s not much to look at and so I think my standards of what is beautiful might be a little different.” Huber is now based in Connecticut, where she teaches in the English department at Fairfield University. Though the area has its share of vacant industrial buildings, it doesn’t hit the same as Illinois. “I found how much I also need the horizon,” she says. “Often when I get back to the midwest, I just feel my whole soul settle down because I love the nothingness in some ways.”
Huber’s deep and at times complicated reverence for the landscape that made her comes across particularly well in the title essay, presented as a simple list. It offers a way of seeing the midwest as she sees it, of learning to slow down and really notice the beauty in freezing cold winters, concrete loading docks, and burned-out steel mills. Her description of “billboard-sized abstract paintings in layers of faded paint and chipped brick and colors that haven’t been named yet,” ubiquitous on the interstates of the midwest, is one of the most striking accounts of visual art that I’ve read.
Equally as bewitching is “Land of Infinite David,” which tracks Huber’s life alongside that of David Foster Wallace, who grew up near the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Both came of age in the corn grid, promising students who crisscrossed the state for high school competitions, and later relocated to the Boston area before returning home to Illinois. Though Wallace lived his later years in California, Huber writes that he claimed Illinois as his own, adding: “. . . and I understand one piece of myself through the lens of him, he who takes the idea of cows-on-the-book-cover and farm-town bucolic and stares at these ideas until they dissolve into exhaust.”
In her LitHub article, Huber writes, “The essay saved me.” She told me, “I love that it allows me to discover stuff . . . that it can sort of branch out in any direction.” In some of the works here, Huber tells it to us straight (what it was like to waitress at Pizza Hut or track her pregnancy); in others, she brings together seemingly disparate ideas, letting the reader learn alongside her and make their own connections. One piece unites the lofty claims of Miller High Life with the dashed dreams of her father and the emotional availability of Archie Bunker. No matter the format, each essay contributes to a sort of whole, a rendering of the shape of the author, formed out of long, cleansing walks, thrift store clothes, a hardworking family, and a love for a certain kind of working-class man.
As Huber writes, “Birth does not equal destiny, but landscape helps produce the soul over time.” Love and Industry shows the landscape of Huber’s soul, yoked to the endless horizon line of the midwest, where the “pink, gold, and brown flatness” is writ large.
Love and Industry: A Midwestern Workbook by Sonya Huber
Belt Publishing, paperback, 189 pp., $19.95, beltpublishing.com/products/love-and-industry
On a bone-chilling night in 1993, Elizabeth Augustine stands in a cramped Ukrainian Village venue sipping cheap beer, counting down the seconds until her date with a boy she has a razor-thin connection with can finally end. As the aforementioned man, with middle-parted hair and John Lennon glasses drones on—because she may like music, but…
Belt Publishing releases two new books that examine the language of the middle of the country.
Eula Biss’s new book looks at the omnipresence of money in our lives, from the perspective of an artist who has made it to the middle class.