With ‘The Hard Way on Purpose,’ native son writes love letter to Akron, Ohio

03/07/2014 1:00 PM

03/08/2014 9:49 PM

You’re 18, enjoying a beautiful day in America’s Rust Belt. You’re driving around aimlessly with your friends listening to the rock band the Pretenders. You hear the “driving, primal drumbeat” and you all start “mad punching” the Pontiac’s dashboard.

Then your fist starts to hurt, so you ask your buddies, “Why are we doing this?” They look at you with “wild euphoria mixing with vague disappointment and judgment,” and answer: “Because this is what we



You’ve killed the moment for you and your pals. You’ve also given the reader an opening to ask, “Why are you writing this?”

David Giffels, assistant professor of English at the University of Akron, tends to drive a particular idea home over and over from one essay to the next, then suddenly slip in the opposite of that exact point in his nonfiction collection, “The Hard Way on Purpose.”

For instance, Giffels fiercely loves his hometown of Akron, Ohio. This book is an ode of love to his city and his state — he says Ohio is shaped like a heart. He was once a ballboy for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but wait! He says he possesses “no intrinsic loyalty to the home team.” What?

Giffels’ book is


intrinsic loyalty. He is so loyal that he never wants to leave Akron.

Those who do leave plague the book, inspiring what Giffels calls his “sadsack cartoon catchphrase”: “I have spent my whole life watching people leave.” This sentiment appears on roughly 13 of the book’s 256 pages — he revels in it.

He also revels in the decay of Akron: “I loved the wrecked and abandoned buildings not out of a morbid fascination or a sense of exploitation, but because they felt like home.” He has license to love the decay because he’s a native son who has never strayed.

Woe to the native who has left Akron and wants to discuss its decline. Giffels mentions a Cleveland man who spent many years in New York, only to come home and speak on a radio panel about his native land’s “underappreciated local treasures.”

Giffels bristles and wants to tell the man he lost his right to talk about the decline


the good stuff when he moved.

At its best this collection relays bittersweet anecdotes about the child of a teacher and an engineer growing up in a dying industrial town. We see that while, yes, thousands of people lost their factory jobs and the factories themselves closed, there are other people who make up a significant portion of Akron’s population.

This segment, including Giffels and his family, intends to reinvent Akron, really own it, and shore it up for future generations of devoted Akronites.

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