The Hole at the Center of Everything

Going Home to the Rust Belt with Night in the Woods

Ian Faith is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa. His research and teaching focuses on contemporary literature, new media, and digital cultures. Other works can be found in edited collections, the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, and the Journal of Games Criticism.Follow the author on Twitter

I was first drawn to Night in the Woods (Finji, 2017) by its skater-punk decal art style and irreverent sense of humor. I’d expected a poignantly human reflection on loss and change despite its matter-of-fact anthropomorphism. What I hadn’t anticipated was NITW’s uncannily familiar premise. After struggling with mental health issues during her sophomore year in college, Mae Borowski returns home to the crumbling former mining town of Possum Springs. She hopes her hometown will ground her, but it’s changed, and the people she tries to reconnect with have matured while she feels stagnant. Like Mae, I fled home to the Rust Belt during my second year. I had struggled to keep up with coursework, make friends, and generally adjust to the demands of adult life. Although I was given special permission to move from the cramped cinderblock dorms to a chilly tight-windowed efficiency off-campus, that accommodation turned out to be isolating rather than liberating. Far from the camaraderie of residence halls and student clubs, my loneliness turned to depression. My grades suffered. Just living was an immense effort, and more than anything, I felt exhausted. Moving back home didn’t tame my depression or make passing calculus any easier, but at least I was embedded in a city whose history and meanings I shared. Mae explains she came back because “things aren’t just things here…I’m home now, and I can do something besides sleep and cry alone.” Possum Springs’ defunct sawmills and abandoned coal mines may be empty artifacts, but they represent a sense of identity, even if it isn’t clear to Mae what that means anymore. To some degree, NITW is a bildungsroman about growing up in a struggling community. It also speaks to the roughly 30% of college students who experience depression. Yet there is a distinctive rust-colored patina clinging to NITW that deeply understands the unique mixture of loss, nostalgia, and identity crisis endemic to the postindustrial Midwest. 

When people ask where I’m from, I used to answer, “near Cleveland.” I was intentionally vague for convenience. Most North Americans know where Cleveland is, and probably a bit about its history. With that two-word incantation, the conversation moves on. It’s not that I was ashamed of being from Akron, though it is “a hard place to be from” as The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney puts it. It’s that conversations about my hometown force me to revisit the Rust Belt’s singular blend of traumas. Unless they’re from the region, most people generally haven’t heard of Akron, though they might eagerly ask me if I know LeBron James (why would I?). In these moments I become an oral historian, handing down the stories I’ve inherited about freeway pilot tests, the Professional Bowling Association, and Chuck Taylor’s basketball career. But by far, the thing Akron was known for—the thing we most knew ourselves for—is rubber. Firestone, Goodyear, Bridgestone, General Tire and Rubber, and B.F. Goodrich were all founded in Akron. Our neighborhoods oozed from their rubber factories, congealing into a segmented and well-worn urban sprawl. Firestone Park. Goodyear Heights. The Seiberling family name adorns our streets and schools, and thousands visit their Tudor-revival mansion every holiday season hoping for a peek inside the once-posh lives of the old Akron aristocracy. With a hurried Wikipedia-like gravitas, I become an avatar of my hometown’s anxieties about becoming irrelevant. According to fellow Akronite David Giffels, we fear we have no identity at all. “As a result,” he writes, “we have tended toward a pathological compulsion to seize hometown cultural coattails. To associate ourselves with something that would help us to explain ourselves to the wider world” (66-67). Explaining my hometown is an emotional labor I’m only sometimes able to shoulder. But that labor isn’t what made me start answering “Where are you from?” with “near Cleveland.” It was because the people who recognized Akron didn’t give me the chance to explain my hometown. Instead, a flash of awkward pity casts their eyes down. “I’m sorry,” they offer, both for asking and for my geographic misfortune. 

Figure 2 Friedlander, Lee. “Akron.” 1979-1980. Gelatin silver print, 11 in. x 14 in. Akron Art Museum.

There’s a kind of collective ignorance about the Rust Belt and the people who live there. Even charting the region on a map is difficult; although technically in the Midwest, it’s culturally distant from the “Minnesota-nice” portrait of the region. What people tend to know is a set of stereotypes that tell a narrative of racial discrimination, job loss, poverty, depopulation, and opioid epidemics engraved onto its neglected architecture. We’re fascinated by Rust Belt ruin porn, an entire genre of post-apocalyptic images ranging from photographer Lee Friedlander’s “Factory Valleys” to Pinterest collections where Akron’s Rolling Acres Mall and Detroit’s lost neighborhoods appear next to Chernobyl and forsaken chateaus. The pilot episode of professional skateboarder Rick McCrank’s documentary series Abandoned (2016) visited Akron. In his 2017 inaugural address, Donald Trump used this iconography to stand in for working-class struggles broadly, referring to the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” This is where I grew up. And this is where Night in the Woods begins, by staring unflinchingly into the Rust Belt’s loss of industry and loved ones. In a text-only preface, Mae recounts, “on [grandfather’s] last day he sat up suddenly and stared bug-eyed through the window” at one of four choices: (1) the old empty mill, (2) the old playground, (3) the old trains, or (4) the old parking lots. As he fixates on his town’s dilapidated landscape he mutters, “this house is haunted.” We assume he means by the living. Ruin porn, Trump’s address, and her grandfather’s dying words are dystopian imaginings of the postindustrial Midwest which can only see decay and despair in its landscape, and which yearn nostalgically for the return of American industry. But NITW isn’t about yearning and loss, though they are crucial to understanding its characters. Instead, it tells a story mostly elided in popular media: that of the people who stayed. 

Figure 3 Bea and Mae observe a mural depicting miners at the Possum Springs library.

Like the postindustrial Midwest itself, NITW is a story of arrivals and departures. When Mae arrives home the first night, she observes that the newest structure in town is the bus terminal. It is telling that she is the only arrival. Possum Springs is an amalgam of every Rust Belt community, a vaguely-western Pennsylvania town spotted with convenience stores, gas stations, SSA offices, and telemarketing firms that replaced the old storefronts and restaurants. What remains are the things they couldn’t repurpose: the defunct trolley systems, abandoned factories, and crumbling monuments that constantly remind Mae of their faded vibrancy. She belongs to the generation that grew up having only heard stories about her hometown’s heyday. Hers is a vicarious nostalgia learned from parents who took whatever benefitless, nonunionized, minimum-wage service jobs were left after the industrial exodus. Her mother works as a receptionist for a struggling church Mae has long-since lost faith in, and her father who once labored in the mining and glass industries now works the local supermarket’s deli counter. Meanwhile, banks threaten to foreclose on their home. This constant sense of precarity galvanized one of the quirks of Rust Belt culture: an expectation of stoicism expressed by uncomplaining productivity. In these communities, the second-worst thing one can do is be unproductive. The people who stayed—either by choice or circumstance—take pride in the fact that they continued to support their families despite massive hardships. Giffels calls it doing things “the hard way on purpose.” It’s a stiff-upper-lip attitude we convey with shrugs and mutterings of “it could be worse” and “it is what it is.” During Mae’s first few days back, the constant refrain of neighbors and friends is “have you found a job yet?” She hasn’t, of course, and isn’t looking. This alone would be enough to earn her community’s disdain, but Mae has already committed the worst sin. She left.  

Figure 4 Gregg and Angus tell Mae about their plan to leave Possum Springs.

In the Rust Belt, we resent the people who leave, almost as much as the industries that abandoned our communities to, as Mae’s neighbor Selmers declares in her poetry: “replace my job with an app / replace my dreams of a house and a yard / with a couch / in the basement.” At the same time, we envy those who leave, wishing we too could “die anywhere else. Anywhere, just not here,” as Mae’s amateur punk rock band pleads. This conflict defines Mae’s strained relationship with Bea, who took over the family hardware store in high school after her mother succumbed to terminal cancer and her father had a nervous breakdown. As medical bills piled up, Bea moved what was left of her family into a shabby apartment where she takes on the additional role of caretaker. “I don’t have a life,” she tells Mae, “I have obligations. And routine.” But at night she literally dreams of leaving. Once a month she even drives to a small college town ninety minutes away to pretend she’s a student, to “feel normal for like 2 hours a month.” Bea confesses she hates Mae a little for leaving, but even more because by dropping out of school, Mae “gave up the thing I can’t have.” I know countless people like Bea who were forced to stay, either by obligation or manipulation. My mother, for example, was a talented cellist in her youth. At 16, she was offered a full scholarship to The Juilliard School of Music. Her parents, ever-anxious about their children leaving, refused to sign the consent forms. She still lives in Akron; she stayed to give end-of-life care to her abusive mother because no one else would. For those who do leave, there’s a pervasive hum of survivor’s guilt. It’s the result of an internecine choice between leaving in hopes of personal stability or staying to help the community that needs us more. I was fortunate enough to have the choice of leaving.

Figure 5 In the abandoned mines below Possum Springs, Mae and her friends confront a cabal of former miners who give human sacrifices to a supernatural entity.

I don’t know David Giffels, but I think I understand him a little. We were at The University of Akron at the same time. While I was pursuing an M.A. in literature, he was (and still is) director of the creative writing program. When I announced I’d been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Iowa, Giffels approached me after a department meeting. Up to that point, we’d only ever exchanged awkward nods in the bathrooms of Olin Hall. “Congratulations!” he beamed with a bit of pride. It was a kind gesture that meant a lot to me. But there was something else in his face I couldn’t read. I thought about it occasionally. Shortly after moving to Iowa City, I read his work. Maybe I hoped for insight, or at least to understand my hometown better. Instead, he answered me bluntly, “I have spent my whole life watching people leave” (11). Giffels had the opportunity to relocate to New York earlier in his journalism career but decided to stay. He chose the hard way on purpose. Sometimes I imagine what I or my hometown would be like if I had done the same. Maybe nothing would have changed. Or maybe I’d have done some good. Both thoughts scare me. This too is a Rust Belt quirk: we mourn the versions of ourselves and our communities that never realized because of circumstance. We circle in unknowable hypotheticals. What if my mother had gone to Juilliard? What if the United Rubber Workers hadn’t merged with United Steel in Pittsburgh? What if Goodrich hadn’t sold to Michelin? Am I any different from the industries that left? For what it’s worth, I’m glad Giffels stayed because the story he tells about our hometown is, like his expression, one that rejects cynicism by smiling, laughing, and hoping despite loss. 

NITW too rejects cynicism. In a surprising magical realist turn the final act gives shape to Rust Belt nostalgia, loss, and longing as a nebulous blackness beneath the empty mine, a great “hole at the center of everything” responsible for Mae’s compulsory return home, as well as her mental (and physical) illnesses. It is an eldritch horror the previous generation worships and to which they sacrifice the unproductive Possum Springers so the “god” will prevent the town from dying. The old miners embody the nostalgic hopes of a postwar generation desperate to believe—against all odds— that American industries will return and revitalize their communities. They are, as Laura Hudson writes of Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero (2013-2020), a ghost of the American Dream, and the tragedy is that “it keeps haunting America because it doesn’t know that it’s dead.” But Mae refuses the cultists, the god, and the corroded ideas they stand for. She instead chooses to hope that she and her hometown will recover by growing into uncertainty. Part of how we hope is by laughing at anything, no matter how bleak. It’s a defense mechanism, much like Mae and Gregg’s running jokes lamenting “it’s too bad” the other didn’t die in increasingly absurd ways, even after situations in which they really could have died. “It’s too bad you didn’t join a murdercult,” Gregg quips in the epilogue. We filter our thoughts through a dark sense of irony that refuses to let despair control us or our stories. Instead, we reinvent them. When I left for my Ph.D. program, I reinvented myself as a scholar with working-class sensibilities. And now, facing a pandemic-strained academic market, I am once again faced with reinventing myself. I don’t know what that means yet. But these days, I always answer “Where are you from?” precisely. I owe it to the people and city that shaped me, even if it means having distressing conversations. And I owe Akron help as it struggles with its own reinvention. And I see it trying. A few years ago, The University of Akron established a one-of-a-kind Corrosion Engineering program studying and preventing infrastructural decay. It’s known locally as the Rust Institute. Reinvention and hope are processes we choose, and we’re always in the middle of them. By NITW’s climax, Mae hasn’t solved all her problems. She’s still depressed, her friends may leave Possum Springs, her family still struggles with economic precarity, and she has no idea what she will do with her future. Still, she tells the hole: “I want to hope. And I want it to hurt.” I know I do. And it does.

Works Cited

Giffels, David. “The Hard Way On Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt.” New York: Scribner, 2014. 

Hudson, Laura. “The Tragedy and Mystery of the ‘Best Game of the Decade.’” Wired. 29 January 2020.

Klinefelter, Quinn. “Detroit’s Big Comeback: Out of Bankruptcy, A Rebirth.” NPR. 28 December 2018. 

National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression and College Students.” 2012. 

Infinite Fall. Night in the Woods. Finji, 2017. 

The White House. “Remarks of President Donald J. Trump. As Prepared for Delivery. Inaugural Address. Friday, January 20, 2017. Washington D.C.” 

Trubek, Anne. “Our collective ignorance about the Rust Belt is getting dangerous.” Time Magazine. 3 April 2018.