Joe Oestreich’s ‘Partisans’

by SARAH L. BAILEY

As an Ohioan, I can attest that Ohio is a strange place. Its lakes catch fire. Its flag is a swallowtail pennant instead of a classic rectangle. It’s the state of seven US presidents and twenty-five astronauts. Columbus, Ohio, hometown of Partisans author Joe Oestreich, is known as America’s test market. The city’s demographics supposedly mirror Middle America, making it the perfect place for national restaurant chains and product manufacturers to try out their new ideas. Like the city from which he hails, Oestreich’s essay collection Partisans, out from Black Lawrence Press, represents something much larger than itself.

That’s not to say Partisans focuses on typical experiences—quite the opposite. Oestreich has led an extraordinary life. An almost famous musician, the progeny of an ex-nun and an ex-priest, a Midwestern world traveler, and a wallflower child, Oestreich takes us through his formative moments and tethers each memory to universal emotion. We may not know the streets of Turkey or own the entire AC/DC discography, but we’ve all felt that tingle of adventure, that gut-wrenching fear of being discovered as uncool. Oestreich connects with the reader through these commonalities, taking us on the wild tour of his exceptional life.

In the first essay, “The Mercy Kill,” we meet fifteen-year-old Joe Oestreich, who, discouraged after learning his father left his mother for another woman, declares that it is impossible to truly know someone. He then goes on to tell the story of his neighbor’s murder trial. His mother was good friends with John Parsons, they walked together every evening, but his father disliked the man. At the trial, his father testified—surprising Joe, because the testimony was both favorable to Parsons and honest. The essay explores all types of relationships, reminding the reader of the beautiful and heartbreaking ways people can surprise us.

In the title essay, Joe and his wife are watching the Ohio State football game in the home of a man they just met. The man in question, Chuck, looks like Joe—that is, white and American. Both men are interested in football. Both men drink beer. From someone on the outside looking in, it would appear that Joe and Chuck are on the same team. But when Chuck begins spouting off racial slurs, Joe’s allegiances are tested. Is this really a man he wants to associate with? Is this really the team he wants to be on, even if it is just for a night, just for a football game? These seemingly small questions highlight the bigger issues of racism and marriage, of determining allegiances, leaving the reader to question his or her own alliances.

Many of the pieces in Partisans center on the seemingly minor but ultimately transformative moments in life. In “The Botch Job” we learn of Oestreich’s tattoo that doesn’t necessarily represent what he thought it did, but rather the courage to have gone through with getting a tattoo. In “Barreling into Uncool” we read about the nerve-wracking evening that reminded Oestreich of why he fell in love with music. These are the kinds of moments so many of us can recall in our own lives—the first time we saw Van Gogh and wanted to paint, or the book we read that convinced us to become writers. “It’s important to stop and acknowledge these small, precious things,” Oestreich writes, “because these are the things that so often pull us into the long lasting and the transcendent.”

But not all of the essays are memoir-style. Oestreich also taps into his background in the music industry and his time in Columbus, Ohio to inform his writing. For example, “This Essay Doesn’t Rock” delves into the sociopolitical etymology of “rock,” while “The Bodyman” centers on the author’s friend Dave Cook, who suffers from Wilson’s disease. Rather than out-of-place inclusions, these essays find their way into Partisans through their deep connections to the author’s journey. If it weren’t for his time traveling with his band mates in “In Any August,” he wouldn’t have been able to write “The Upside of Addiction” which discusses the music industry’s (and American society’s) obsession with potential and “its riskier sidekick, upside.”

Because he covers various topics, Oestreich’s prose shifts depending on the moment. Essays like “This Machine No Longer Kills Fascists (Did It Ever?)” discusses the power (or lack thereof) of music to transform politics and it strikes a different mood than “Tricoter,” an essay on marriage and children that, at times, reads like a short story. But even with his ability to transform mood, his sentences are always precise and pensive. He’s humorous in one paragraph: “Exclamation points are a reliable indicator of non-rock. The more exclamation points, the less rock. Count on it” and poignant the next: “Six months ago Dave shelled out a thousand dollars and took up the deed on the house. For a man who has struggled for ownership of something as fundamental as his own body, this was a rare win.” Oestreich’s frequent use of the present tense is immersive. His fast-paced narratives excite. It’s a collection that’s difficult to put down—it can be devoured in a few hours. But, most impressively, Oestreich tackles heavy issues like race, marriage, and societal expectation with great empathy and candor. He is a brilliant American voice.

Chuck Klosterman, a music journalist briefly mentioned in Oestreich’s “This Essay Doesn’t Rock,” once said, “Ohio is a scale model of the entire country, jammed into 43,000 square miles.” Partisans is similar in that way. It’s a book for Gen Xers, for artists, for those afraid to disappoint, and for those who need the courage to become who they really are, even if they don’t know who that is just yet. It touches on the potency of music, the strength of love, and revels in the tacit feeling that you’re out of place, even when you’re in your place. Much like the wonderful city of Columbus, or the strange state of Ohio, Partisans reflects some part of us all.