One thing Downriver, the debut short story collection by Jeanne M. Leiby, will certainly not make you want to do is to move south of Detroit, the setting of most of her stories. Polluted working-class neighborhoods wedge themselves between abandoned factories, and the bar is hard by the sewage plant—or "the shit factory," as one bartender calls it. And a bartender is necessary here, to inebriate the denizens of this pocket of the post-industrial Rust Belt. One of the stories, "Rusty Nails," is named for the drink, not the fasteners. In another, "Vinegar Tasting," the protagonist doesn't even get the pleasure of drunkenness, only the ulcerous burn-and-choke of old balsamic. Joy is elusive and contentment is relative—one satisfied couple only earns glum praise: "They don't seem unhappy with each other."
There are many children in Downriver, and they have a rough time of it, too. They bear up under struggling, angry, alcoholic parents; they reach into the toxic river and are impaled by dirty hypodermics; they suffer humiliation and injury, even migraines and death. The teenagers choose ruinous rebellion over suburban boredom—there's nothing else to do downriver, after all, besides watch 1,000-foot-long freighters churn their way toward the Great Lakes. "We are made of ash and soot," says the depressed vinegar-drinker, "nurtured by the waters of the near-dead river, and nothing can change it."
Leiby's steely prose leaks not a drop of nostalgia for her childhood home (she no longer lives there), and as she feels her way back through it, some of the pieces in Downriver—published by Durham-based Carolina Wren Press—feel like sketches for a novel, one that would shine a hard, bright light on a coal-dark place. Here's hoping she writes it.
Jeanne M. Leiby appears at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham to read from and sign copies of Downriver at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2. Call 286-2700 or visit www.regbook.com for more.