February 13, 2020: “The Basic Problem with Interior Renovation” by Joe Kapitan

Hello to you, Story366!

Getting pretty excited about spring here today. Not sure why I’m saying this, as it was in the twenties all of today, the temp never rising, not even when the sun came out and shone bright—I was ridiculously underdressed for my trek to campus. So if it’s not the weather, it’s got to be something else. Maybe it’s because AWP is coming up and I’ve been planning for that and that usually ushers in the change of season. Maybe it’s because my spring break falls the following week and I’ll have time, after my trip to San Antonio, to catch up on everything, especially around the yard, the “outside work.” Maybe it’s because the hyacinths chose today to poke of out the ground (bad move, hyacinths). Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching the news every night this week, and by “the news” I mean the MLB Channel, its nightly roundup of the day’s baseball stories. Maybe it’s because the sun is creeping up to our side of the equator (or vice versa, I understand). Maybe I dreamed of a robin last night, its orange breast plump with the spoils of a worm. Maybe I want seek out colored eggs out in the woods. Maybe I’m just itching to wear my white slacks.

Usually, I don’t have this yearning for spring, at least not since I moved to Springfield in 2012. The weather here, while not Southern, is certainly an improvement over the Midwest doldrums of Chicago and Ohio. This year, however, it’s like it’s really winter, and for the first time in years, I’m actually starting to wonder if this is ever going to end, the misery index of cold and overcast skies. I hate talking about weather in this blog, but I don’t think I am: I’m talking about the seasons and this weird retro feeling I’ve had, this longing for nature to do me a solid. I don’t ask for much in this world, and I usually get back even less. But really, I’m ready to go, put on the short pants and sweat a bit.

Nice segue, this talk of overcast skies and bitter cold, to today’s book, Caves of the Rust Belt: Ohio Stories by Joe Kapitan, out in 2018 from Tortoise Books. Kapitan has me nostalgic for my eighteen years in the Buckeye State, remembering what it was like to live in the heart-shaped land of his birth. There’s some gray skies, sure, but that’s only a part of the profile of the state in question, which Kapitan chronicles in his collection.

The books is made up of shorts—I’ve read Kapitan’s work before, in journals, most of it of the short-short variety—interspersed with longer stories. I like Kapitan’s shorts, including the title story, “Caves of the Rust Belt,” as he offers smaller glimpses into his worlds and themes. I liked the first longer story, “Letter from a Welder’s Son, Unsent,” but something about the next longer piece, six or so stories in, really grabbed me tonight. So, “The Basic Problem with Interior Renovation” it is.

Kapitan’s bio says he’s an architect and a handiman, which is what the protagonist of “The Basic Problem with Interior Renovation” also claims to be. At the outset of the story, he’s working on the roof of an old mansion, a job he describes for a while—this narrator likes to do that, go off on explaining what he’s doing, the logistics of his work, the rationale of his actions (which has an impact on the story later on). But yeah, he’s in Athens, Ohio, fixing up the old Hollensbee mansion, which he acquired from a local Trust for a song, promising to restore it to its former glory in exchange for the surrounding land. Seems like he’s a basic flipper, like the people on TV, only he’s working with this mansion.

Only the old Hollensbee mansion isn’t just any old mansion: It’s a historic site, which is why there’s this Trust connected to it. Local Athens kids learn about Hollensbee in school, how he was a stop on the Underground Railroad; he’s most famous for being at the center of a particular 1858 incident involving some Southern soldiers and a group of escaped slaves, including a young man named Bartholomew. The way the local (i.e., white) history books tell it, Hollensbee helped slaves to the North, but one night, almost got caught by these Southern soldiers, only to be saved by Bartholomew, hiding under the floorboards with a shotgun. Hollensbee ended up with some buckshot in his leg, crippling him, but Bartholomew and his fellow slaves escaped to Michigan and the Southern soldiers all died, as they so richly deserved.

What’s so captivating about this story is that this isn’t the only version of Hollensbee’s legend. Another paints him as a slimy opportunist, the kind of guy who would gladly see escaped slaves to freedom if they could pay, but would be just as happy to return them to the South if they couldn’t; deals could be made if the group was poor but featured an attractive young lady amongst their numbers. At best, Hollensbee is a complicated local hero, depending on, of course, who you ask.

If Hollensbee can be described as “complicated”—and that’s being kindly democratic, what makes “The Basic Problem with Interior Renovation” so interesting is how equally complicated its narrator turns out to be. Like Hollensbee, our narrator is going to see this venture go to profit, no matter what, no matter who steps in the way. Enter local real estate agent and African American crusader, Corinda Baxter, who becomes a prominent figure in this tale. I won’t give any more away here, but again, our narrator, if history were to tell his tale, would be kind in dubbing him “complicated.” Our narrator is by no means the good guy in this story, something I like to run into when I read stories.

I like Joe Kapitan’s easy prose about these Midwestern characters, people who seem familiar to me, places I’ve been to, conflicts and tragedies and yearnings I’ve experienced myself. Kapitan eloquently details them in Caves of the Rust Belt, honestly depicting a place and a people who have so much history, so many stories to tell, he could probably write ten more books and still not run out of Ohio tales to tell.