November 9, 2020
“They Make Me Restless”: Masculinity and Belonging in the Midwest

“They Make Me Restless”: Masculinity and Belonging in the Midwest by Andy Oler, Ph. D, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

        In Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home, near the start of a western road trip that college-age Ryan Erickson has planned with his girlfriend, Janine, they stop in Grenada, Iowa, to stay atthe Erickson family home for the night. Ryan is anxious about coming home: “Everything here was familiar, a comfort to him, but at the same time he wondered how long he’d have to sit and endure it” (28). Throughout the visit, Ryan’s concerns seem valid. While there are outward signs of welcome—his mother has put out snacks and his father is working the grill—the conversation is polite but awkward, and his parents and siblings are interested, but only in a conscripted way. Eventually, processing the evening with Janine, he alights on what he feels is an accurate—and adequate—description of his feelings: “They make me restless” (45).
        Restlessness follows the men of the Erickson family throughout the novel. Ryan leaves town for college and goes to grad school but ends up switching careers after an ethically suspect relationship. He then goes into computers and becomes wealthy, but his restlessness appears again when he cheats on his wife and connects tohis hometown primarily as an absentee investor. Ryan’s brother Blake never leaves Grenada and, while he seems to understand his family, he views his hometown and the changes there through a narrow lens. Their cousin Chip never felt he fit in, and it doesn’t get easier when he returns from Vietnam, though he eventually stumbles into starting a comic book store that serves the town’s misfit boys.
      While their restlessness is partly economic(some with, some without), it also has a broader cultural element. Chip, for instance, felt the town didn’t accept him because he “was never your all-American-boy type” (16). He is an “oddball” (10) who hasn’t become the kind of man the town can be proud of: “Chip had been out of the army for most of a year now, living in his parents’ basement, and was having trouble getting his wheels underneath him, as Ryan’s father said” (11). Midwestern veterans’ integration into civilian life has been explored a great deal, most famously by Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. More recently, Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical Cherry tells the story of an aimless young man who goes to Iraq, returns and becomes addicted to heroin, then ends up in prison for robbing banks. Chip shares that lack of direction, and even a tendency to thievery, but smoking weed and drinking never made him quite as desperate Walker’s unnamed opioid-addicted narrator. Though Chip feels he is “the wrong kind of veteran” (11), his unease stems mainly from expectations placed on him by people like Ryan’s dad, who expects a kind of mobile, fast-moving masculinity that Chip never seems inclined to perform.
        Ryan feels a similar pressure, though he is more consciously reacting to a longer tradition of Midwestern labor and family life. In the first scene of the novel, he has gone to help Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha set up for his sister’s wedding reception. Norm and Martha, like the Peerson family more generally, “believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity” (3). Seventeen-year-old Ryan helps without complaining but “thought of them as part of some grim, old-country past that laid claim to him without his consent” (3-4). Late in the novel, Ryan reflects on Norm and Martha, remarking to Blake,“You wonder if they were happy, or if that’s just a bunch of nostalgic crap”(313). Blake responds,“They didn’t think in terms of happy,” and continues, “Let’s see the rest of the place” (313). In that moment, when Blake rejects the premise of Ryan’s question and then immediately gets back to work assessing repairs on the farmhouse, he both understands and extends Norm and Martha’s cultural legacy. Sarah Smarsh makes a similar point in Heartland—for her, like the Peersons, everyday laborwas how her family cared for each other. Blake now continues this tradition, but he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable within it, partly because he and his wife Trish feel the pinch of raising their family in Grenada:“They could barely keep three kids on two salaries when his parents had raised four on his dad’s job alone. The math of the world had got screwed up somehow”(252). Blake’s restlessness is different from Ryan’s because it is based in his father’s world, not Norm and Martha’s.
        In so many ways, these men match American and Midwestern stereotypes, but still they feel alienated because they live at a time (like all times) when those images are changing. So are the way people respond to them. For instance, when Ryan tells Janine that his family makes him restless, she replies that, in fact, he’s acting like “a total asshole” (45). While these men’s feelings are largely justified, it’s worth noting that not every character gets the chance to be restless. Many of the book’s nonwhite characters are reduced to stereotypes, such as when Blake imagines a Mexican restaurant to be unclean, and people assume Elton Potter is a successful photographer simply because he is Native American. Others are reduced to single characteristics, like when the Ericksons treat Janine as an exotic figure from some “dusky origin” (27) or, conversely, Megan O’Brien’s adoptive parents attempt to erase her ethnicity. Thompson does not fully explore these complicated questions of belonging, though these characters share their struggles with characters from other Midwestern stories. For instance, in Louise Erdrich’s Tracks, gossip, misogyny, and racism complicate Fleur Pillager’s life on the Chippewa reservation andinthe nearby white town. In…y no se lo tragó la tierra (…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him), Tomás Rivera articulates the precarious economic and cultural position of migrant farmworkers. And in Sula, Toni Morrison shows the effects of both long-term and acute oppression on an entire community.
      Still, it’s not as if this novel isn’t thoughtful about difference. Early in the book, teenage Ryan has already begun to understand “that there were all sorts of ways to be on the outside of things” (17). One thing we might take away from The Year We Left Home is that, despite the way Thompson legitimizes the Ericksons’ feelings of restlessness, she also shows how difficult it can be for them to see their own privilege.
Andy Oler grew up on a farm near Economy, Indiana, and attended two in-state universities. He is the author of Old-Fashioned Modernism: Rural Masculinity and Midwestern Literature (LSU Press, 2019) and editor of Pieces of the Heartland : Representing Midwestern Places (Hastings College Press, 2018). His writing has appeared in the The New Territory, MidAmerica, College Literature and Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies. He teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. 
Posted In: INseparable, One State / One Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *