Pete Beatty has tapped tall tales for his debut novel Cuyahoga ($27, Scribner), and the deep dive into fantastic, historical fiction pays off. In this dialect-driven book of frontier tales set in 1837, the area around the eponymous river becomes a central point of tension. Told in first-person, Beatty writes in a 19th century English dialect as a tribute to an old American tradition and one of Beatty’s idols, True Grit author Charles Portis.
“I wanted to mess around with language,” Beatty says. “Writing in straightforward blank verse didn’t seem appealing.”
Beatty’s novel is ostensibly about the rivalry between Cleveland and Ohio City — what Beatty calls “the narcissism of small differences” — as the two cities compete to build bridges across the Cuyahoga River. Immersed in that competition is Big Son, a mythic character whose adventures include chopping his way out of a burning house to rescue a widow and her baby, swimming to race against a steamboat and rescuing people from the collapse of one of the bridges.
Ironically, Big Son’s story roots itself in a man who was born nearly 150 years later.
“LeBron James was kind of the inspiration,” Beatty says. “He really is a tall tale hero.”