After a long hiatus, I find myself reading fiction again fairly regularly. I started the year reading Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, which took me forever, despite its critical acclaim. It took me four months to finish the book. Maybe the book’s lack of a traditional plot threw me.
Soon after, I read John Guzlowski’s new novel, Little Altar Boy, which I finished in five days. You can read my review: here.
From there, I read Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, which I enjoyed very much and finished within the space of a week (this is pretty fast reading for me!) I chose not to review that book because it’s had enough attention. I want this blog to focus on books from smaller and indie presses… books that struggle at times to get attention.
And so, I find myself reviewing Chris Geier’s novella, Silt, out from Alternating Current Press. Having arrived home from a fly fishing trip, I had some chores that kept me from the book’s 138 pages but, once I started, I finished it too in about a week.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to find in the pages of a book centered around a German immigrant in 1856 Cincinnati, described on its cover as “Ein Hard-Boiled Spiel.” I don’t often read historical fiction, but then I don’t often read “police procedurals”… and I loved Guzlowski’s book.
Like Guzlowski’s book, I was not disappointed in the least by Geier’s novella.
Very much like in Guzlowski’s book, there’s been a murder at the beginning of Silt, and protagonist Werner “Boom” Bosenbach finds himself investigating it. (I’ll let the reader discover why he’s called “Boom” but it’s a great backstory). Bosenbach is no police officer or detective, but instead is the “muscle” for Lafcadio, a loan shark of sorts. Most of Bosenbach’s previous “investigations” revolved around chasing down, and punishing, men who owed Lafcadio money.
Bosenbach is a richly drawn character, very much a flawed hero, with a debilitating penchant for lager and booze and not in any way shy when it comes to using violent force.
From the jump, Geier shows himself to be a skillful wordsmith, evidenced by the book’s opening paragraph:
“From the southern banks of the Ohio River, he looked back at Cincinnati. Smudged by summer mist, the city was penned in by a mounded, earthy ring of hills, as if the land had foreseen an invasion and thrown up a hasty bulwark. Against those defenses, the city flung tendrils of new development. Within them, it grew fatter, taller, denser.”
There’s a real pleasure in following Bosenbach’s lumbering investigation that takes him to some interesting, if not downright seedy, locations in 19th Century Cincinnati…from bars to bawdy houses and even to a safe house location of the Underground Railroad.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing that this would be a historical work of fiction. Geier knows of what he speaks when it comes to that Ohio city’s past. In his acknowledgments, Geier thanks the Cincinnati Public Library and the Cincinnati History Library and Archives, and I can only imagine the countless hours he spent using their historical resources.
The city itself becomes a character in the book. Many stories of Cincinnati’s past are woven into Bosenbach’s story and, because they were unknown to me (and many, I would suspect) that aspect of the book was its own pleasure.
Too often, when dealing with the 19th Century, we get the history of the South or the West. Not so in Silt. Instead, we get the rarely portrayed history of the Midwest. Cincinnati has its own unique and conflicted location, poised as it is on the Ohio River, which makes a border between Ohio and Kentucky… and a border between Cincinnati and Covington, KY.
Ohio at the time was a free state and Kentucky a slave state with only a river in between these conflicting philosophies regarding the “land of the free.” The federal government had put The Fugitive Slave Laws into effect, and “slave hunters” factor into the plot of Geier’s book as well.
Cincinnati at this time is rife with prejudice… against Germans, against the Irish (about whom Bosenbach remarks “they’re here to make the rest of us look good.”), but especially against African Americans.
Charles, an African American character in the book, becomes an unlikely partner to Bosenbach in his search for the killer. Charles remarks on the irony of his condition in Cincinnati versus those on the run from the South:
“‘That’s how close it is. People out there. Criminals. Crawling under leaves and logs during the day, stumbling along at night. Criminals. Devils. Mad people. ‘Cause they trying to steal themselves. Me, I’m sitting here with a pipe and jug, like I made it.’”
But, moments later, he reveals the tenuous nature of his own situation when Bosenbach alludes to the fact that Charles could be in danger if he is found connected to Bosenbach’s investigation:
“‘You mean, life could be dangerous for me in Cincinnati?’ Charles laughed. Quieter, he said, ‘Any white man ‘round here could just snuff me out and go home. That’s this town. Dressed up like the North, ignorant and angry like the South, full ‘a guns like the West.’”
As my introduction to historical fiction, Silt was a true pleasure. It does not lose sight of the fact that it’s a work of fiction and must tell a story. It’s not a history book masquerading as a story.
It does both… tells a compelling story while organically exposing the reader to a largely unknown history within the history of the United States.
I highly recommend this quick and gripping read.
You can purchase Silt from Amazon: here or better yet (better for the press and the author) buy it directly from Alternating Current: here.
Jeff Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. His latest collection, The Neighborhood Division: Stories, is now out through Whistling Shade Press and available: here.