‘Cuyahoga’ Adds to the Elite Company of American Tall Tale Heroes

Tall tales require a hearty sense of grandeur. In this exaggerated literary landscape, one thing is certain: bigger is always better. Think back to the tales of Pecos Bill, John Henry, and Paul Bunyan. Each of these popular spirits brims with unrivaled strength and maintains a larger-than-life persona. These iconic figures of the American tall tale have been around for ages, with no new name to join their elite company — at least until now.

Pete Beatty’s exhilarating, laugh-out-loud debut novel, Cuyahoga, gives birth to literature’s next great tall-tale hero, Big Son. Big, as expected, possesses a physical presence that separates him from those ordinary folks around him: “His shoulders wide as ox yokes. A waist trim as a sleek lake schooner. Muscles curlicued like rich man’s furniture.” Big’s body certainly doesn’t go to waste either. It’s 1837, and Ohio is expanding. He is the one charged to clear the land: “He butchered the trees in a dozen ways. Pulling one up and swinging it as a club into another. Busting one over his knee. Sending one tumbling into its cousin like tenpins. Smiling as he went — leaving stumps and holes and busted tree-bones all over.” Once he’s finished, he has a “rastle” with the lake — just to prove his power.

In Cuyahoga, Big frequently shows his superhuman strength, but it doesn’t take long to see that his constant prowess doesn’t fulfill this modern hero of the tall tale. What Big really wants is to marry his beloved, Cloe Inches. But there’s a problem: Big doesn’t have Cloe’s heart (or the money that he thinks stands in the way of their marriage). Much of Big’s story focuses on his quest to finally get paid for his incredible feats so he can, hopefully, get his wish.

While Big’s various adventures certainly guide much of Cuyahoga, it’s Big’s younger brother, Medium Son (or Meed), who affirms the book’s towering, tall-tale worthy soul. Meed is an ordinary man — an orphaned coffin maker — and narrates this tale in an oftentimes biased (and hilarious) voice. 

Meed loves his brother and is in awe of Big’s extraordinary accomplishments, but Meed is also jealous — very jealous. His envy grows when he begins to compile an almanac of his older brother’s successes. Locals tell Meed about how Big whipped the devil, taught alligators to waltz, and got bit by “one thousand rattlesnakes.” The key part of the third point is how Big survived and took the time to “bite each one back.” 

Meed experiences so much jealousy that he sets out to prove that the very things that Big fears the most, which are the rascally night pigs (“just what the name suggested — pigs that went by dark”), aren’t so scary after all. They are troublesome for sure, eating “Bibles, bedclothes, saddles, shoes, dogs and cats,” but Meed is determined to face these mighty foes no matter the cost.

Cuyahoga, in this way, stands as a reminder about the pitfalls of jealousy — how it can break us and control us. 

While much of Cuyahoga’s heart certainly belongs to the antics of Big and Meed, Beatty’s novel also explores the distance between the life of simplicity and the life of progress. As Cleveland’s population soars past “one thousand souls by the year 1828,” Meed says, “Your true mule westerner does not prefer one thousand neighbors. As Cleveland grown, handfuls of folks spilled across the river looking for an emptiness more to their liking.” The separation and animosity between the residents of Cleveland and lesser-populated Ohio City grow as the years pass. Cleveland wants industry and opportunity. Ohio City wants to be left alone. The two don’t want to meet in the middle. When talks begin about bridges that will bring the distinct towns together, things turn sour quickly. The way Beatty displays how people strongly oppose connection with those who see the world differently than themselves makes Cuyahoga feel timely — even with its 1830s setting.

Cuyahoga, through the eccentric voice of Meed, is certainly one of the year’s most audacious works of literature. The fragmented, splendidly delirious narration is full of dated colloquialisms such as “hidy” and “rastle,” and Meed’s grammar is never the best. Sounds from Meed and Big’s world (“thwock,” “krTTHWANNFFNG,” “thwink,” “churrk,” and “skweeent”) take to the page and deliver even more energy. While the narrator’s rambunctiousness does take a few chapters before it settles into a steady groove, Cuyahoga rarely stumbles.

Beatty’s novel is wholly original, but there are literary spirits running through its veins. It’s nearly impossible — with such humor and creative vernacular on display — not to think of Mark Twain. Meed’s unreliable, myth-creating narration is akin to that of William Bloom’s, the voice that guides Daniel Wallace’s magical novel Big Fish. There are also stories from the Bible and key figures from America’s tall-tale canon that make important appearances and add to the depth of this extraordinary novel.

In 2020, it’s especially a delight to escape into the world Beatty gives us. Cuyahoga delivers a lot of humor and love. And, like the best tall tales, it’s a big helping of fun.

FICTION
Cuyahoga
By Pete Beatty
Scribner
Published October 6, 2020