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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Author Bakopoulos illuminates rust belt realities

By Hannah Grischuk

Eyes flicking downward as he grinned shyly, Dean Bakopoulos charmed the crowd of community members and students that filled Pioneer Bookstore in downtown Grinnell last night during a reading of his first novel “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon”.  The popular English professor read the first chapter of his novel and answered questions posed by an eager audience about his novels and the process through which he creates them.

Moon is physically and emotionally set in a fictional suburb of Detroit in the midst of a socioeconomic decline, a setting he draws from his own childhood experiences. While describing his writing process and his experiences at Grinnell, Bakopoulos speaks as a successful novelist, but the young boy from industrial Michigan occasionally shows through.

“It would be nice to make it in Hollywood, you know, send some money home to your ma,” Bakopoulos said.

Moon focuses on a rust belt community in which one by one, all of the men desert their failing businesses and walk out of their families’ lives. Their abandoned boys are forced to fill the fathers’ shoes with the constant, unstated worry that one day they will follow too closely in their fathers’ footsteps and walk out. The novel’s critique of the Michigan community speaks to Bakopoulos’s larger views about society, and the end of the American dream.

These views about American society and life in the rust belt are clearly influenced by his family background. Bakopoulos places particular importance on the story of his immigrant grandparents who carved out lives for their family working blue-collar jobs in the Detroit area, in contrast with his experiences growing up.

“You really needed to fight … so you had a future, so you excelled at something that got you out of there and away from the auto industry,” he said about the mentality of his youth. “I think we lost something profound when we got rid of all our manufacturing jobs and took away that social mobility to increase profits.”

In his novels, Bakopoulos incorporates his lament that society has gotten deeply corporatized and consequently that people have become detached from a sense of community. He considers Moon, published in 2005, something of a harbinger.

“It’s one of the first novels to capture what was happening, … that we were really saying goodbye to something, … and I like to think that this book really anticipated [the end of the American Dream]”

It is because of these beliefs that Bakopoulos came to Grinnell in the first place. Though he recognizes Grinnell’s large endowment as somewhat of a financial shield, he praises Grinnell as an institution for taking into consideration Grinnell’s values, not merely profit, when making decisions. “There seems to be an increasing openness to making decisions that are not simply based on monetary return,” he said. “There is an appreciation for distinctiveness, smallness and authenticity.”

Similarly, in the town of Grinnell he finds that the people put significant value on independent businesses and developing with strategy and purpose. He was particularly happy that the reading was held in the Pioneer Bookshop.

“It is a valuable part of the community, an independent bookstore with a great selection.”  He contrasts this with Detroit, where development is operating with a sense of panic and blindness, just trying to turn a profit without a clear vision of how.

Bakopoulos sees a great deal of importance in towns like Grinnell, towns with values that differ from the values of corporate America. “[…] even though everyone doesn’t always agree here, there is a lack of apathy in the College and in the town that is the beginning of imagining a better future.” He hopes that the reading was a step in bringing together the campus and the greater Grinnell community.

“There is a different ethic in the way things are done here,” he said. “I’ve been very impressed with the leadership of the school, and I think it is the job of the students to be critical of the school and to always keep an eye on it.”

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    Connie LongFeb 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Interesting article. I’m looking forward to reading the book. Perhaps American corporations, like the one that makes those little listening devices we all love, could do their part to bring manufacturing back the the US.