North Dixie Highway is Haske’s first novel. It follows Buck Metzger from childhood through military campaigns in Bosnia to the months following his arrival back to his hometown, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The narrative centers on Buck’s desires to revenge his grandfather’s death: “The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life” (15). Lester is the man suspected of killing Buck’s Grandpa Eddie and this central event sparks a violent family rivalry that culminates near the end of Haske’s novel.
In telling Buck’s story, Haske has managed a debut work full of action and vivid scenes that wallows and thrashes in the filth and grunge of dirty realism. Haske’s grittiness, his willingness to get into Buck’s family’s deepest and most dysfunctional thoughts and actions, is a welcome contrast to the politically correct narrative realisms that one often finds coming from today’s big publishing houses. And when mired the deepest in the most salacious and insanely questionable situations, Haske’s characters are not defined by their mere animalistic desires of revenge, lust, and fear, but illustrated in finer strokes by the mores and the environmental imprints of the U.P.’s sense of place and its effects on the author’s deep-rooted empathy for his characters—his family, his countrymen.
For the most part, authentic senses of place, like those found in Haske’s North Dixie Highway, are lost in larger houses’ catalogs, except for in the rare instances of works like Junot Diaz’s urban landscapes or Haske’s U.P. predecessor’s, Jim Harrison’s, Brown Dog novellas. Haske’s North Dixie Highway exemplifies quality place writing that is often lost at larger houses, as they attempt to appeal to a broader sweep of American readers. Haske’s brand of fiction, its deep affinity and necessitated need for place, defines a true sense of American realism that harkens itself to place-based literatures like Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs or Hawthorne’s Salem. Haske’s North Dixie Highway acknowledges its geographical and social differences from the rest of the United States, but in its self-identified differences the novel also highlights its commonalities with other regional literatures and the characters built from American literature’s preponderance for frontierism, where the main character must travel through trials, tribulations, and violence to emerge on the other side as something more complete and learned, pure and purged if you will.
Haske’s ear for Michigan’s U.P. dialect allows the reader to form a distinct image of the characters’ interactions with one another. Haske’s use of scenery is unique as well:
"It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mix together while the brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth." (24)
The way Haske develops North Dixie Highway’s atmospheres, which contributes to the mood of the characters, is reminiscent of the best in Hawthorne or Kafka. Haske’s work shows an author versed in observation and who paints still life across the U.P.’s sprawling landscapes, but does so by peeling back the layers of paint that present our human facades to reveal the dirtiest and truest weaves of the canvas that make us human. Haske’s first novel, in a sense, catches that which makes us human, whether we want to admit the ugliness of what makes us real is actually the beauty that connects us.
North Dixie Highway’s delivery is quite admirable, too. Perhaps the most obvious thing to note of Haske’s novel is that it relies on three major shifts in time to deliver the Metzger family’s story and its effects on Buck. Haske’s handling of this kind of shifting temporal structure is unique for contemporary realism because, though the reader is aware of this narrative delivery, it does not hinder one’s following of the novel’s major events. Haske’s purpose for utilizing this narrative technique emphasizes the psychological development of North Dixie Highway’s characters’ attitudes toward their own experiences. The shifting temporal settings allow the reader to tap into the complexities of Buck’s thoughts regarding avenging his grandfather and his family’s rivalry with Lester Cronin’s kin. Haske’s use of tense shifts is masterful and, where these shifts can feel contrived in lesser writers’ works and displace the reader, for Haske’s North Dixie Highway, the shifts simply invest the reader deeper into Buck’s development as a person and aids the narrative’s pace.
Haske’s brand of dirty realism defines the American realism that aspires to find and codify what it is to be American and define those senses of place that make us what we are, a vast diaspora of experience and need. North Dixie Highway ranks as a great first novel. With this novel, Haske has managed to create a page-turner with the complexities of a postmodern novel, but one with the empathy and the reach of Realism. Haske is a writer to watch.
Joseph D. Haske is a writer, critic and scholar who teaches literature, creative writing and other courses at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. His fiction appears in journals such as Boulevard, Fiction International, the Texas Review and Pleiades. His poetry and fiction are also featured in various anthologies as well as in French, Romanian and Canadian publications.
Daniel M. Mendoza lives in South Texas. His other work has appeared in Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and Colorado Review.