Brian O'Neill: Western Pennsylvania is rich in fiction, both good and bad


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It's a literary scavenger hunt like no other, Peter Oresick's quest to tabulate every novel, stage play and screenplay ever written in and about Western Pennsylvania.

The removal of a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball a couple of Easter Sundays ago slowed him down. Those will do that. But it's testimony to this quiet poet's resolve that he didn't even mention that surgery until we were an hour into talking about his "Pittsburgh Novel" project on his front porch in Highland Park one sunny morning this week.

I'd expected Mr. Oresick to have begun ranking his finds in the way of literary lists such as "1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die." But, no, this task began as a scholarly one as he sought his full professorship. That goal died when his surgery left him too disabled for the rigors of professorship, but he's undaunted in this monumental task. It should lead to a book.

Mr. Oresick, 58, has found more than 2,000 fictional works, posting 1,100 of them on his blog, The Pittsburgh Novel, in the past 13 months. Draw a straight line north from Bedford to the New York border and those 26 counties west of the divide fill out the blog's subhead: "A Reader's Guide to Western Pennsylvania in Fiction & Drama, 1792-2014."

Adventure, Amish, Christian, Comedy, Detective, Fantasy, Historical, Romance -- "Throw it all in there and it's going to be quite a stew," he says. A lot of it is pretty bad. At least one paperback bodice-ripper, "Allegheny Ecstasy," would appear to fall under Dorothy Parker's classic quip: "This is not a novel to be tossed lightly aside. It should be thrown with great force."

Some of the screenplays are no better. Take "Allegheny Uprising," starring John Wayne -- "It's horrible. Absolutely horrible," Mr. Oresick readily conceded.

Yet Western Pennsylvania book-lovers going to this blog should find plenty that will have them pulling out their library cards.

Mr. Oresick grew up 40 miles up the Allegheny River in Ford City. A library card opened the world to the blue-collar kid, and his factory-worker father shocked the teenage Peter one day when he told him, "I have a friend who's a novelist."

He immediately went to the library and checked out "Request for Sherwood Anderson," a short-story collection by Frank Brookhouser, a Ford City boy turned Philadelphia newspaper columnist. Seeing surnames he recognized, young Peter began thinking of fiction as a career. An interview for his high school paper with Anthony Burgess, author of "A Clockwork Orange," clinched that. (In strange foreshadowing, Mr. Burgess told young Peter he wrote prolifically after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.)

Poetry became his artistic calling -- he has written or edited six books of poetry -- but his working life has been largely spent promoting Western Pennsylvania novels such as Thomas Bell's saga of Eastern European immigrant steelworkers in Braddock, "Out Of This Furnace."

After a stint teaching in city schools, Mr. Oresick was hired by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1981 to push its books across the hills and valleys. He spent 14 years at that trade and since has taught English, writing and/or publishing everywhere from Emerson College in Boston to Pittsburgh CAPA High School to Carnegie Mellon University, Pitt and Chatham.

He tallied a passel of out-of-print titles in those years. About five years ago, in sessions that echoed Mitch Albom's best-selling memoir, "Tuesdays with Morrie," Mr. Oresick would every Wednesday visit the Point Breeze home of an early mentor and champion of Western Pennsylvania literature, David P. Demarest Jr., to discuss their finds.

"I think you and I are maybe the last people who care" about the Western Pennsylvania canon, Mr. Demarest told him before he died at 79 in 2011. But who wouldn't smile at learning of "Fred Fearnot and 'Pittsburgh Pete,' or, Lively Times in the Oil Country," a 1907 dime novel? It may never get better than its title but needn't bother.

I was particularly intrigued to learn of the prolific Margaret Deland, born in 1857 in Manchester on what is now Pittsburgh's North Side. I've lived a couple of blocks from Manchester for most of the past quarter-century, so when I left Mr. Oresick I drove to the Carnegie Library's main branch to check out Mrs. Deland's books and see how she made Manchester sound idyllic in "Old Chester Tales."

Fourteen pages in, I can already see I won't like her books as much as I have Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys" or August Wilson's "Jitney" or that wicked 2011 short story collection, "Pittsburgh Noir," but it's clear there's a lot more of Western Pennsylvania left to read.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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