Risen from Sawdust and Sweat (and Maybe Snow): A Review of Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker
by Michael Berry
One Friday night during my first winter in Marquette, some fellow graduate students and I braved a snowstorm for post-reading beers at a dive bar that more often than not is filled with locals who work swing shifts in the power plant, or snowplow drivers, or a shrinking number of miners. That night, I wore leather dress boots and a new overcoat. We ordered a pitcher of Pabst and another of a local beer, and were enjoying ourselves civilly when three empty cans of Busch Light hit me in the back. When I turned to see who hurled the empties, three bearded, hatted men in Carhartt coveralls caked with grime laughed to each other between looks. No words were exchanged, but their message was clear: We know you are an outsider and we do not have to like it. The dichotomy of us/them, outsider/insider, who are they/who am I, in particular to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is the driving force of Adam Schuitema’s first novel, Haymaker, which answers the question: What happens to a small UP town when a group of well-intentioned but ultimately zealous Libertarians invades?
Early in the novel, Schuitema establishes the population of Haymaker (a fictional town) in a way that truly represents the spirit, people, and way of life in the Upper Peninsula. And in this representation, the book’s greatest tension—how will Haymaker react—is born. Nearly everyone in Haymaker has either lived there their whole lives or for a majority of it, which is commonplace in the UP. They live here and many will die here having never left. I’ve spoken to several “transplants” in Marquette in my time here, and many, once they decide that this is their place, where they belong, they are completely at peace with dying here, surrounded by the snow and the great Lake Superior on the north side. The townspeople of Haymaker, from the major players to the background townies, embody that same mentality and rugged spirit.
Haymaker’s characters are some of the more memorable I’ve stumbled across in my more recent reads. I’ve always been drawn to truly real, human, oddly gritty characters, and Schuitema gives us a whole cast of them. There is no singular protagonist, but rather a cast of townspeople and outsiders, some of whom are followed frequently from chapter to chapter, and readers are able to piece together their own sense of us/them as they pick their way through each perspective. Perhaps you may be drawn to Ash Capagrossa, the first character we meet, a teenage basketball standout who, while watching her baby brother, notices a stranger taking photos of downtown Haymaker, an event which sets the rest of the book in motion.
Perhaps you’ll be drawn to Ash’s uncle, Donnie Sarver, like I was. Donnie is tattooed, runs the local towing service/auto shop and every year during Haymaker’s “Boomtown Days,” an annual celebration of the town’s legacy of lumber, the hardy men and women who built the town and how far it has come since being carved out of the woods by hands calloused and cracked, Donnie fights an outsider who has either challenged him or been challenged in a public spectacle, an act which is legally protected under a two-hundred-year-old statute protecting one’s “personal honor” and the right to defend it.
Donnie is the Upper Peninsula embodied. He lives in an apartment above Rita’s Floral and Gift, right in downtown Haymaker, smokes and drinks hard, fixes things for a living, detests anyone and anything that has not lived in Haymaker or the UP their whole life and he defends those beliefs tooth and nail (and with great success—his fight record at the beginning of the novel is seven wins, no losses).
The novel begins in Haymaker (the town itself is set up as its own character), and shortly we are transported to Michigan City, Indiana, to meet the soon-to-be invaders, the Freedom Community and its own Public Relations guru, Josef Novak, the only character from that group we get to follow. Everything on the Libertarian side of these events is filtered through Novak, and his own complex humanity is revealed throughout the unfolding of the story. Haymaker treads dangerously close to becoming a political novel, but Shuitema cleverly deconstructs the idea of personal/party politics. I found myself questioning my own values, wondering what my home was, how I would defend it, if I would defend it, and how that would even play out in today’s world.
Schuitema’s prose is patiently and purposefully understated throughout the novel, which seems to match these characters, this town and the endless winters that hunker down in the UP every year (seriously, we had snow on May 15). So the moments he opens up to the imagistic or lyrical stand out that much more, like his descriptions of the lake, the colors (colors are so present throughout this novel) of the seasons and other moments meant to sing, do so when they’re contrasted with the grittiness of the rest of the prose.
The language of the frequent campaign/public relations materials placed at the end of many of the chapters mimics pamphlet/brochure vernacular. It’s almost scary Schuitema can so fluidly work between the literary and the purposefully businesslike. These moments, titled “Haymaker at a Glance,” give us further insight into the town and how outsiders perceive what we may already know or are beginning to understand about the characters. They help gear us up for the showdowns, the throwdowns, and I would safely bet that you’ll be rooting for one side, character, or place by the end.
Both of Schuitema’s books are set in Michigan. He lives here and teaches here (this review is written here, too). These facts may make it easy to bill Schuitema as a “Michigan writer.” But narrowing his work to such a place-specific label is limiting. Michigan is a state with four actual seasons and a wildly ranging economy, landscape, and demographics, and not using that geographic literary weapon would be plain silly. Schuitema paints vivid, memorable pictures of the Upper Peninsula and its people, but the events in Haymaker go beyond the woods, the pines, and Superior to the north; they show us what could be, what could happen, if our own idea of “home” were challenged. Wherever you’re from, you’ll find Schuitema’s work beautifully subtle and gritty, patient and, I believe, important.
Michael Berry is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Northern Michigan University and an Associate Editor for Passages North. In a past life, Michael ventured across the country to participate in the odd-known world of competitive trapshooting.