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River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa

Ben Miller

Lookout Books
$17.95 paperback with flaps
5½ x 7½   
336 pages
Published in 2013

From a striking talent with keen powers of observation comes this evocation of the eccentric Miller family’s tangled connections—between themselves, an unlikely cast of locals, and a seldom-documented urban Iowa, one not of cows and cornstalks but of concrete and rust, full of longstanding institutions buckling under economic pressures and peopled by citizens adrift in an America that began to vanish in the 1960s and ’70s.

The brood of six Miller children wanders the injured terrain of Davenport, glomming onto a motley neighborhood crew in the hopes of obtaining the security lacking in their chaotic home ruled by unhappily married parents. In prose that is by turns wise and euphoric, Ben Miller reveals a strange but instantly familiar Midwestern tableau—the mother grooming her baton-twirling daughter for stardom, the neighbors whose backyard cookouts have to the curious onlooker the gravitas of Greek drama, and the band of aspiring writers who meet to quote The Elements of Style over Pall Malls in the gym of a defunct school. Through it all, Miller returns to Mr. Hickey, his Virgil, a bow-tie-clad widower who guides his young journey by exhibiting a beguiling power to bear losses without himself becoming lost.

Miller has engulfed the reader in a dysfunctional family searching for what it means to be a family and a city grasping for identity in the wake of strip malls and pop cultural trinkets. From this expansive debut—interspersed with Bob Campagna’s vintage photographs of urban Iowa in the ’70s—readers will emerge rooted to the terra firma of our national literature and reminded of the dreams we inherit as our own, long after we’ve moved away.


"Ben Miller's prose is incandescent, bittersweet, and hilarious. Few writers have given more compelling voice to their memories of a particular place. The Great American Midwest will never look—or feel—the same." —Jackson Lears, author of Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
"Ben Miller seems not so much to write his sentences as dowse his way into them, following the subterranean logic of language and creating the amplitude of his completely unique America. His prose is, at once, fetchingly lyrical and deeply comic—comic in a way that is eyes-open to the tragic sense of life. Reading his work, I feel disconcertingly—but also relievedly—human." —Sven Birkerts, author of The Other Walk and The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
“Ben Miller's writing has left a trail of clear and perfect images lasered permanently in my mind. His imagination is astounding in its breadth and detail, but it is the heart behind the words, the emotion he brings to the smallest moments, that makes me such an admirer of this writer and his work, and has me anxiously awaiting, and cheering for, the publication of River Bend Chronicle.” —Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
"Ben Miller says of growing up in the Midwest, 'There's an element of the whole experience that is so vast as to be far beyond words—a kind of salty continual wind around the mind . . .' and a wind around the mind is perhaps the best way I can describe Miller's writing. What I love about his work (among other qualities) is the way it seems to harness and surf this wind, creating both the consciousness-on-the-page experience that often defines the best nonfiction, as well as a unique physicality and sense of place, or at least psychological architecture. You have to give yourself over to the writing's own idiosyncrasies; but this effort is always rewarded with lines or images that give back ten-fold what they ask you to bring. Miller starts with something small, simple and subtle, and then takes the reader into faraway places—both real and imagined. His writing embodies contradictions—atmospheric and concrete, fantastical and true—and in a single essay, ‘In Hickey's Havana,’ Miller explores the Midwest, Muhammad Ali, neighbors, body image, language, imagination, men, sport, family, and Havana, Cuba, all through his own unique lens. His writing is just a joy to read. I've been waiting for this book for years."
—Steven Church, author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst