Monday, March 01, 2010
Can you go home again?
By David Heinzmann
There’s a two-lane road that runs north out of Peoria, cutting through miles of black dirt that was wide-open cropland when I was a teenager growing up in the area.
I think I drove it just once back then, plodding along warily in the darkness behind the wheel of my little Plymouth, looking for the turnoff to a pasture where some kid I barely knew had spread the word of a party—a keg of beer, a sleeve of plastic cups and a bunch of kids stumbling around in the weeds getting drunk, separated by miles of emptiness from the nearest parent or patrol car.
Today, that road is a main thoroughfare through the heart of Peoria’s subdivision sprawl. It’s not far from my in-laws’ home and I drove it over the weekend while I was in town for a book signing. Thousands of new homes have blanketed the rolling landscape over the last decade, and new schools have sprouted while the old downtown schools decay or close. This new growth is the winning end of that fine old riverfront town’s hollowing out into a bifurcated mess of haves and have-nots.
My idea of Peoria has changed a lot over the years, and some of it not for the better. My shabby old Catholic high school—which brought together kids from all walks of life in a broken down campus of historic buildings—is gone. The motorboat that I used to steer up and down the wide, muddy channel of the Illinois River has long since been donated to charity. But mostly, I have changed and am not the kid I was back then. If the old me doesn’t exist, neither does the place in which I was young.
The first book I wrote, which I began in college, was a lousily autobiographical story about a young man losing his hold on the idea of home. Midwestern boy goes east to college. Boy comes home after college. Boy realizes he’s changed and home isn’t really home anymore.
I thought I was Fitzgerald. But I was really just lost. I didn’t know how to write that story then (its dusty pages reside right here in a drawer), and I don’t think I would know how to write it now.
Years ago I asked a writer friend in Chicago, who happens to also be from Peoria, whether he ever wrote about our hometown. He said, goodness, no. He set all of his stories in the cities of his adulthood.
I haven’t done it, either. I write about Chicago and crime—the experiences of my adulthood. I notice that most of us in the Outfit are writing about an adopted place, as well. And most of the crime novelists whose work I admire also write about places far from where they were raised. There’s something about being an observer looking in. And exploring a new place and discovering what makes it tick.
This has been a fairly long way around to a question--and I apologize for my self-indulgence--but I’d be interested in other writers’ thoughts about the differences in writing about the places that we come from versus writing about the places we’ve come to.