How a Science Fiction Writer Reinvented St. Louis


cahokia eric book covers



On one side of the river, an ancient civilization that has never lost its hold on our imagination. On the other, a faded, self-defeating city that could have been so much more. St. Louisans live in a place caught between past and possibility, and lately, that tension is inspiring novelists. After reading Cahokia Jazz, a British author’s vision of a region the Indians never left, I discovered a series of science fiction books that imagine a Cahokia deliberately rebuilt, in a parallel world you can only cross where the boundaries thin.

In 2015, Eric von Schrader, a documentary filmmaker who had never dreamed of writing fiction, had a series of weird dreams. Familiar places—Euclid and McPherson, 39th Street, Grand and Gravois—turned vivid, full of such colorful life and brazen architecture that the images refused to dissolve the next morning.

He jotted down the dreams and thought no more about them. Then a character popped into his mind: the son of Steve Mizerany, an appliance-store guy (plaid jackets, loud ties, a boisterous personality) who made cheap, silly late-night commercials that St. Louisans loved to groan about. Von Schrader tucked that aside, too. Then he wondered, What if Cahokia were rebuilt?

He could not let that question go. He began gluing these bits of his imagination to paper. The stack thickened, and in time, he showed the manuscript to comic novelist David Carkeet, who announced that he had something.

Who can resist the idea of stepping through a thin membrane (or climbing into a wardrobe, or eating a mushroom) and entering another reality? But what touched me most about this series of three was the relief of reading them, the pure delight. So many of us love this city and feel helpless to challenge its stubborn sense of inadequacy. “Cities like New Orleans live on their vibe,” von Schrader remarks. “St. Louis tries, but it’s never caught fire.” Project after project “comes close to the critical mass but never takes off.” Bemoaning our lack of imagination has become as popular a civic pastime as bocce ball or the Cardinals.

Having grown up here (Country Day High School ’66, homes in South City and then DeMun), von Schrader knew that St. Louis was extraordinary. Other cities were not built of red brick or organized into historic neighborhoods; people could not drive ten minutes to shiver in the dawn of the spring equinox at a woodhenge.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Cahokia,” he continues. “For that city—the largest in the United States, center of a Mississippian culture that stretched from Wisconsin to Georgia—to just disappear and be forgotten?” He saw a parallel to St. Louis, “another big city that faded away, and no one really knows why.”

He has theories; we all do. The arrogant insularity of small group of wealthy and powerful White men. Blind loyalty to steamboats when the railroads began. The provincialism that made New Yorkers avoid dealing with St. Louisans. The racism that is still tearing the city apart. The corrosive sense of inferiority and disregard for historic preservation.

In von Schrader’s books, St. Louis remains a colossus of bricks, careful not to destroy its solid and elegant legacy. And Cahokia! It has been rebuilt by a pair of archaeologists, one Osage, the other White, who were fired from Washington University for their absurd insistence on the site’s significance. (The characters were inspired by a real married couple in the 1950s, both archaeologists, who made pioneering discoveries at Cahokia but were then fired from Wash.U. for harboring left-wing sympathies. Times have changed.)

The hero of the first book, A Universe Less Traveled, is Billy, son of the salesman. (Von Schrader envisions him played by Ted Lasso if a movie ever gets optioned.)Billy first crosses into the parallel world at the corner of Grand and Gravois, a spot the author chose because it is “an intersection of two major streets that always looked more dilapidated than they should be—which is the story of St. Louis.” After leaving the real Gravois, “a six-lane street with auto parts stores, fast food joints, and nail salons scattered between parking lots,” Billy opens his eyes to “an elegant boulevard flanked by wide tree-shaded sidewalks.” Exploring, he finds a living, breathing Cahokia; an Asian market; brightly colored towers cascaded by plants; side streets paved with black and white stones; “colored discs hung from wires to form a fluttering canopy. Riverboats and dirigibles slow the pace, businessmen wear shorts and loose shirts in summer, people sing together throughout the day, and street suppers pull people of all ages, colors, and ethnicities into a nightly party.

The motto in this alternate reality is “Life is short, and often hard, so let us do all we can to make it sweet.” People enjoy one another in the parallel city. They stay outside together because there are cooling towers, terraces festooned with vines and flowers, and retractable walls that open to the night breezes. “I wanted it to be a place where people didn’t huddle inside watching TV,” von Schrader explains. “I remembered an experience I had in a little town in the Yucatan. There was a town square, and everybody was out, couples strolling, teens flirting, old people sitting stiffly upright on the benches, kids racing to the ice cream truck….”

He translates that flash of sweet envy into a more festive St. Louis, one where pop music is a blend of blues and Middle Eastern music for “the Nile on the Mississippi.” On the riverfront, a floating pier curves out into the river, with boats parked at an angle so more can fit. Speedboats zag between St. Louis and Cahokia, where a brewhouse ferments Kahok beer, a cantilevered elevator rises to the top of the pyramid, and kids play the old Indian game of Chunkey with sticks and a rubber disk.

Billy looks for the Arch and cannot find it. Then, atop Art Hill, he sees two jets of water shoot up from the basin and arc toward each other, joining at their peak. A striking difference from the familiar steel sculpture, which “seems to have thrust out of the ground fully formed for no purpose other than to shout its own strength, magnificence, and mathematical perfection,” he writes. “Though the Arch has become the symbol of St. Louis, it has nothing to do with the city. It stands alone in its green park, where the original heart of the city once thrived.” And there it is: the disconnect. Rooted in the way the real St. Louis had defined, and enacted, civic progress.

In von Schrader’s second book, the North Side is called “Seven Wonders.” It is a bohemian district, not quite respectable, but fun. When Diyami Red Hawk, a Cahokian who falls in love with Billy’s daughter and comes back with her to the regular St. Louis, sees the Grand water tower—that majestic Corinthian column that in his world is one of the venerated monuments—surrounded by vacant lots, he is dismayed. He tells the Black teens hanging out nearby that his ancestors lived there, and he describes the ceremonial mounds. What did they do with them, the kids ask. Well, they buried people. “You mean we’re living on an Indian graveyard?” one teen blurts. “No wonder this place is cursed.”

Bill McClellan called this series “a wistful take on our continuing angst of what we might have been.” But von Schrader would rather think of it as nudging us toward what still could be. “I didn’t want to write a polemic about urban development,” he says, “but I thought I could at least tickle people’s imagination. It all could have turned out differently—and maybe it still can.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.