Lebanese BlondeWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo is a city of great character and great characters. Its history and legacy is one of promise, potential, disappointment and eternal optimism. Its sprawl prevents the cohesive identity of more famous cities but also encourages the growth of enclaves of specific cultures.
In Joseph Geha’s new novel, “Lebanese Blonde,” ($24.95, The University of Michigan Press) Toledo is as much a character as it is a setting; Geha magnificently captures the feel of the city through a steady and unobtrusive weaving in of its mundane daily details.
The novel is set on the edge of America’s fireworks-laden 1976 Bicentennial as, across the globe, Lebanon became engulfed in the explosions of sectarian civil war. It follows two immigrants who use their family’s funeral home in what was known as Toledo’s “Little Syria” — “Mulberry, Superior, Ash, Huron, Locust, back around to Erie, Galena and Buckeye and Champlain” — to smuggle hashish into the country. One of the more potent strains, “Lebanese Blonde,” is named in reference to the Lebanese immigrant women who would dye their hair blond to fit in with Americans.
Geha knows the territory well (the neighborhood, not, to my knowledge, the drug trade), having moved to Toledo’s Little Syria as a 2-year-old in 1946. He attended St. Francis de Sales High School and graduated from the University of Toledo (which would have been Toledo University then). Geha is also the author of “Through and Through: Toledo Stories,” a 1990 collection of stories about his life growing up in Little Syria. He is currently a professor emeritus of the creative writing program at Iowa State University.
The novel is rife with references to life in Toledo, many of which evoke nostalgia even as they highlight “some things never change” elements of Toledo.
One of the novel’s most powerful passages is its opening, in which a patriarch who brought his family to America urges fellow immigrants to let go of dreams of moving back to Lebanon in favor of assimilating into the States.
“They never came here to stay. Yousef stressed this. They came here to take the gold back with them and live out their days like pashas. … ‘But,’ he would add, ‘the first step away takes you all the way.’ So that in the end, who remembers the old country? … You rolled up your sleeves instead. You learned the money first, then the language. ‘America grasps you by the ankles of your children!’ … That trip back to the old country you were planning to take in five years? ‘Before you know it, ten years. Before you know it, fifteen!’”
Even for those who made the pilgrimage back to the old country to die, “In the end your children will send for your body, have it boxed up and brought back to America to be buried. Your dust, now American dust.”
In one amusing and brief interlude, when the protagonists do visit the old country in Lebanon, they field questions about Toledo: “Has Toledo subway trains? How do you like to eat in Ohio, the lamb or only the beef?”
In “Lebanese Blonde,” Toledo represents that atmosphere of hope and slow resignation. Geha uses geography to set the boundaries for readers, evoking the “straight shot up I-75 to Detroit,” Perrysburg to the south, Sylvania to the west, “East Toledo, across the Maumee.”
He is even more specific about the Toledo microcosm, setting scenes at Mercy Hospital and mentioning Front, Water and Summit streets. Oak Openings makes an appearance, as does the red-light night life along Monroe Street.
“The North End is an old neighborhood,” Geha writes. “The curbs are set high the way they are to make it easier for a rider to dismount a horse. There are stretches of Champlain Street near the Buckeye Brewery where you can still see creosote-soaked wooden paving blocks from the last century. In some places you have to watch out for trolley tracks left over from the olden days.”
Geha knows the sites Toledoans hold dear. When a war refugee “cousin” arrives in Toledo, his family takes him straight away to two primary destinations. First is the Toledo Zoo (where the “TZ” on the iron gates are joked about as an Arabic reference to “teezee,” meaning “my ass”) where they marvel at the elephants, polar bears, gorillas, big cats and camels, just as we do today. The next stop is the Toledo Museum of Art, where, again, just as many do today, some of the works are appraised and dismissed with an “I coulda done that myself!” Geha even remembers the old museum coffee shop, with “glass-topped tables along an open walkway beneath a bank of skylight windows. You were supposed to feel like you were in an outdoor European café.”
The characters in “Lebanese Blonde” walk up Monroe Street to catch the bus, listening to Tigers baseball games on transistor radios tuned to WJR. They see Hopalong Cassidy movies at the Mystic Theater on Bush Street. They hear commercials for Highland Appliance in West Toledo. They watch Channel 13 for cop shows and Channel 11 for news.
Geha’s lucid prose manages to be unsentimental when it needs to be, even as it measures out a clear nostalgia for a lost way of life.
And Toledo, as it does for so many of us, provides the background, inspiration and heartbreak.
At 6 p.m. Nov. 8, Geha will sign copies of “Lebanese Blonde” at the Franklin Park Barnes & Noble, 4940 Monroe St.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Contact him at email@example.com.