The Scraps for Forgotten Cities: Matt DeBenedictis on Noah Cicero’s Treatise

Treatise, Noah Cicero, A-Head Publishing


Let’s deal with this elephant in the room; I’m just going throw it into a lake so we can be done with it and move on with a steady momentum. There is just no way around it. You see you can’t talk about Noah Cicero and his writing without talking about his city of residence Youngstown, Ohio. I’ve tried to just write about the characters Noah creates and the story he builds upon, but then it comes rushing in—that damned elephant. Where do they struggle? What former manufacturing Mecca of the Midwest? That’s right Youngstown. But let me be clear this topic that must be addressed is not a bad thing, this is actually one of Noah’s toppling the mountain strengths.

Youngstown screams its own existence out in Noah Cicero’s stories and words. Now when I say obvious it’s not because he throws cheap city references into the faces of readers like he’s taking everyone on a sight seeing tour making sure to make note of a famous hot dog stand or something of that nature. The strife and anger that resides and breeds like a mutated rabbit in such an unsettling city as Youngstown is found in all of Noah’s words. Noah’s words hold harshness and quickness to them, and with most stories being built on character’s thoughts rather than long drawn out dialog the true presence of Youngstown is always felt in how characters tend to abide in a vulgar anger reaction to the hopelessness of their situation. All this creates a trademark that always points back to Youngstown, just like how the echo of doom sound Tony Iommi made in Black Sabbath always harked back to life in the unemployed city of Birmingham, England no matter what pile of apocalyptic visions Ozzy sang about.

The first thing I ever read by Noah Cicero was a short story published online by Bear Parade called ‘The Living And The Dead.’ Its opening grabbed me and shook me all while reminding me to be happy I never went back the city I grew up in—Youngstown. The short story opens with:
3am. A young man throws a body into the river. The body splashes. The man looks at the sinking body. It sinks. The river he threw the body in is the Mahoning River. One of the most toxic rivers in the world.
Right there are two of the most striking things about Noah Cicero’s work. You can’t escape them. One is the quick Hemmingway-like sentences and the other is his assertion of Youngstown being the crux of the death. The Mahoning River is pure pollution with a hint of water in it, there is no doubt about that, but by saying such a thing here, right at the beginning of the story, Youngstown is being called the true pollution that stands out when compared to the world.

In Treatise, Noah Cicero address the toxicity of Youngstown by pointing out what the city has to be proud of, muck and filth, and if that is what the city can give the world than nothing more than that should be expected:
Youngstown did produce some good businessmen who are all in prison now for bribery and racketeering. Our most famous millionaires were Debartlo who owned the San Francisco 49ers who is in prison, Micky Monus who owned Phar More who is in prison. We had a famous lawyer named Goldberg who is in prison. And we had a famous congressman named Jim Traficant who was in a prison mental ward. Our four most famous citizens, the leaders and representatives to the world of our community have all been sent to prison.

Treatise is a different book for Noah Cicero. Its length is much longer than either of his books (The Condemned, a collection of short stories, and The Human War, a novella) and most importantly in Treatise Noah takes the cycle of comfort he’s created in his books and burns it, buries it, and then salts the earth just for a good measure. Treatise is a stepping out. Generally Noah’s characters live in their thoughts, were they usually spend much of the story sorting out strife and trying to be happy while having no hope of things getting overall any better for themselves. In the end they just settle for a quick fix. But not in Treatise, in Treatise the main character Masil seeks to change his life no matter how drastically he has to lower himself and loose himself to do so, and he doesn’t care what anyone has to voice up about his decisions. This is not the normal highlighted person in a Noah Cicero book.

Now from what I understand the actual form, structure, and even characters in Treatise are “modern remixes” of My Life by Anton Chekhov. To be honest I had never heard of Anton Chekhov until I read Treatise, but from what I have gathered in a quick search sponsored by google I should read some of his work and I should have known of that work was earlier in my life, but what should I expect. My lackluster literary education took place in Youngstown.

In The Human War (Fugue State Press, 2003) Noah’s main character writhes through the city’s bars, diners, and strip clubs were his thoughts all wrestle around trying to figure out life on the eve of the second war with Iraq. The character never gets a real answer or a sense of happiness that will actually last, but in Treatise Masil gets the answers and the new life he is searching for. Masil’s journey to “not end up like his father” (as one character describes it) begins with telling his father about downgrading from the upper-middle class that his father lied, cheated, and sold any decency left to be in so he can go work in a factory.
Standing there, my balls grew large and brave, “Fuck your money.” My father grew angry with this. To deny his money, meant that I denied his whole being, his whole sense of self-worth, his identity, his world view, the very rocks, pillars, shingles and aluminum siding that made him who he was. Even though who he was, was a collection of television sitcoms spanning from the seventies to the present.
I’m not going to lead out anymore of the actual story from here because every story ever written seems rather flat and almost vapid when you explain it out; there is nothing to grab onto and enjoy that way. It’s like trying to recreate what made a stand up comic magical to see. You can’t do it. What I will say is what makes Treatise such a stand out book for Noah Cicero. Treatise is the only literary book that has been able to fully capture the struggle and voices that exist in the cities that were left for dead when the companies that feed the community left for cheaper labor overseas. In a town where there is nothing to hope for in personal progress, just being happy to be alive is the only American dream left, that is the scraps off the table left for the forgotten cities.