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Buffalo Lockjaw: Fiction Fosters Stereotype

“Buffalo Lockjaw” is the latest book by author Greg Ames. He grew up in Buffalo and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.  The book received many positive reviews and is said to provide a vivid sense of place.  As it is set in the author’s hometown, that place would be Buffalo.  

The book cover, which is very beautiful graphically, gives a good idea about how the author will be setting up that sense of place.  It is composed of a roughly stenciled title centered over a pair of images that seamlessly blend into one image.  It moves from a cold frothy beer at the bottom which morphs into a center band of pure white (white-out) to a typical Buffalo street covered in thick new blanket of snow.  According to reviews “…love of one’s family and love of one’s hometown mix powerfully”. Could have fooled me!

The author describes “buffalo lockjaw” as a term used to describe the tightly clenched jaw of Buffalonians as they walk through the wind-wiped, snow-blinded streets. Oh really? I have never heard this term, but he makes it sound like a commonly used phrase, as if this condition of braving the cold is so ingrained in the Buffalo populace that it has spawned a slang term.  As if Buffalo is the only cold snowy city.  This and the cover tell you pretty much all you need to know about Ames’ treatment of Buffalo.  I would not call it love. 

The book is an interesting telling of a son’s thoughts on facing the terminal illness and eventual death of his mother at a relatively young age.  If you have seen the movie “The Savages,” that was recently filmed in Buffalo, you have basically seen the movie version of this book with a few variations in character.  It is easy to use Buffalo for this plot because it is pretty much universally known as faded, forgotten old place that fits its stereo type well in the national psyche.  

Ames could not resist using the “snow card” in every situation with the slightest opening to pound home the point that Buffalo is cold and snowy.  I understand what he is doing–placing death and aging in a cold winter-wrapped place.  But, after being beaten over the head with how cold, snowy, and decayed Buffalo is, chapter after chapter after chapter, the metaphor gets a bit tired.  One extra bothersome example (from the first page of a chapter called “Merriment”) was this: “The decaying mansions on Delaware are imposing hulks, some unlit and unheated, sitting in the darkness three hundred feet from the curb, evidence of Buffalo’s Glorious past…” it goes on to describe Buffalo’s fall from grace.  I rack my brain trying to think of any abandoned unheated mansions on Delaware.  While a few of them could use some maintenance, I would hardly describe the street as a place of decay in general, quite the opposite actually.

Sure, fiction authors need to take artistic license to make the story flow.  Unfortunately for Buffalo, that means exaggerations that feed the general stereotype of a dead city with no future. Delaware Avenue is an amazing street–not just by Buffalo standards, but also by national standards.  This kind of artistic license hardly fits with the author’s supposed love of hometown and does no favors to Buffalo.  

To pile on, all the local characters in the book are either old, brainless partiers, somewhat dim-witted, or possibly mentally unstable artists.  Apparently sophisticated, normal, highly educated, and highly motivated people need not apply for a life in Buffalo. I have never been an apologist for Buffalo’s weather and, as a matter of fact, I cheer on the much overdue winter festival this year.  But this book just stuck in my craw; it deals with family tragedy and the finite nature of life in an interesting way, but gives Buffalo a good punch in the face along the way.  So check it out if you dare.  It is a quick read. It won’t waste too much of your time. 

Next up for me is “Buffalo Gal” by another Buffalo expat named Laura Pederson.  The first chapter is called “God’s Frozen People” and the cover is–you guessed it–a winter scene.  Ugh! My brain hurts already.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

View All Articles by David Steele
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