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Austin Chronicle Country of Exiles?

JULY 12, 1999: 

Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life by William Leach (Pantheon Books) $24 hard

If, as Gertrude Stein once said about her hometown -- "there is no there there," she quipped -- then where did the there go? And, more juicily, who took it? In this book, William Leach sets himself the task of updating these questions for the Nineties. Leach sees this decade as one completing the liquidation of "place" in order to meet the greedy expectations of international shareholders, the ideology of ivory tower bureaucrats, and the will to power of various nondemocratic entities, from port authorities to Indian reservations.

Which is all in his favor, in my opinion. I was predisposed to like this book before I read it, hoping that Leach would bash away at the numerous corruptions of the Clinton decade: the immiseration of the working class, hopelessly atomized in the service sector; the ripping away of those social supports (welfare, a sound public education system, medical care) which, since the great Depression, had softened the harsh edge of capitalism; and the encouragement of puff wealth -- in the form of hyper-inflated Tokyo real estate, a bubble which burst in the early Nineties, and currently in the form of IPO millionaires with their stakes in doubtful dot coms and their geek tastes, tending toward Ayn Rand and monstrous mansions out of some Robin Leach nightmare.

It turned out, however, that the book combines criticism of the globalist investment policy with an ugly streak of immigrant-bashing. The book did make me reconsider my ideas, but not in the sense Leach intended. In fact, it made me re-consider the whole mystique of "place," the virtue of which Leach takes for granted.

But first, rousting out Leach's cases, here are the book's basic points.

He devotes his first chapter to the deregulation of the transportation industry, which has resulted in intermodal corporations, or in plain English, transportation companies owning both trucking lines and trains. Along with the "intermodal revolution" has come larger trucks. As a general point, one accepts that the increased volume of consumer goods, transported by dangerous and dirty trucks, is linked to the noisome occupation of much of the suburban landscape by malls. For Leach, there is something insidious about all this trucking going on, but I think his point is rather confused. The point should be that there is something funny about a political philosophy (conservatism) which is overtly dedicated to local control but which reflexively shoves that aside in favor of central control whenever the corporate power structure beckons.

Leach does score some points by pointing out that port authorities, which are the gates of the whole shipping system, are becoming governments unto themselves. This is not something that happened in the last 10 years, however. As readers of Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses know, the creation of public authorities owes everything to the Promethean genius of Robert Moses in the 1930s and 1940s. What Leach does show, inadvertently, is that those commentators who have pronounced the New Deal culture dead are wrong, since the great engines of globalization are cast in the structure of those public authorities, half corporation, half government agency, which were invented back then.

For Austinites, Leach's comments, in chapter four, on the ways the "city-state" university are intricately commingled with various multinational corporations, running their burgeoning population of techies, students, and intellectuals according to their own, autocratically decided rules, will ring a bell. What Leach doesn't say is that these institutions, as nonprofits, hold incredible amounts of untaxed property, which very often, in cities such as Syracuse, New York and New Haven, Connecticut, lead to the odd circumstance that a surrounding cast of visibly poor people, often renters, usually blue collar workers, are called upon to bear the entire burden of city services which have to detour around the visibly wealthy institute. Meanwhile, the visibly wealthy young students, throwing in an average of $20,000-plus per annum in tuition costs, are coddled for four years and then shuffled out to high-paying jobs where they pay taxes in some other part of the country. For these cities, the nonprofits -- the universities, museums, churches, and hospitals -- are like invading armies encamped, year after year, within the citadel. If I were a mayor of one of those cities, I would definitely consider contracting with terrorists from outlaw states to blow them up, lock, stock, and colonnade.

Nothing this radical, I assure you, is proposed by Leach.

In the last half of the book, Leach assaults immigration. His argument is much like the argument Marx makes about unemployment. The reserve army of immigrants, swelled through the machinations of academics and multinationals, exerts pressure to keep down wages and to discourage investment in native training and employment.

To assess the pluses and minuses of immigration, we need some standard beyond the statistical. The great advantage of immigration is that it preserves elasticity. To see this, take a counter-example: the South. In the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, the South well deserved Mencken's phrase for it, the Sahara of the Bozart. It was inbred, racist, intolerant, and economically dependent on the North. The past is still with us, too: The South still contains some of the worst pockets of poverty and ignorance you can find in this country (if you don't believe me, I suggest a long, leisurely car ride from, say, Shreveport, Louisiana, to Birmingham, Alabama. Be sure to strike up some conversations at the Stuckey's and Shoneys on the way).

What changed that picture was the Civil Rights movement. Among Martin Luther King Jr.'s other achievements, he brought the South back to life. Breaking the 100-year-old caste system opened the South up to immigrants -- mostly internal immigrants from the North at first, and now others from dozens of improbable places. There's actually a mosque, serving Bosnian Moslems, in my hometown, Clarkston, Georgia -- which would have been unimaginable when I was in high school there. The most competition the Southern Baptist Church used to get, back then, was from the Methodists. There are Vietnamese in Houston, Turks in Dallas, German intellectuals in Austin.

What's been lost here? Admittedly, the wonderful Gothic element, viz. Faulkner and O'Connor. That Southern aristocracy, with their noblesse oblige which occasionally produced an attenuated Percy, facing down the KKK-crazed hordes.

But the trade was well worth it.

So if preserving the spirit of the place means preventing Baltimore from pulling down their wonderful brownstones in an "urban reclamation" project, I am all for it. And limitations on growth, as in Portland's recent agreement with Intel, should make Leach happy. That's an important step toward making metropolitan areas livable. But the nostalgia underlying Leach's main project evokes in me that old Talking Heads song:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn't live there if you paid me to.

--Roger Gathman



Home Town by Tracy Kidder (Random House) $25.95 hard

A college town in a gorgeous natural setting, with a mix of conservative longtime residents, New-Age newcomers, artists, drifters, and yuppies getting rich in a hot real estate market. Sound familiar? Northampton, Massachusetts is a bit like Austin in miniature -- only with seasons.

In Home Town, Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a New Machine, House) turns his clear, calm eye and wistfully elegant prose on this smallish town. At 30,000 people, he notes, Northampton is about the size of Plato's ideal city-state. In the mid-18th century, the brilliant preacher Jonathan Edwards raged from the pulpits here. A hundred years later, the town saw the founding of Smith College.

Another century has passed, and Northampton now includes a thriving lesbian community. Jonathan Edwards would hardly recognize it.

Kidder uses those deep and enviable New England seasons to break his book into four parts (although the tone remains curiously autumnal throughout). But the book's true structural device is character -- the half-dozen people Kidder follows through the year. These include Laura Baumeister, a single mother scraping by on food stamps as a Smith scholarship student; Alan Scheinman, an attorney whose life has been frantically frozen in time by severe obsessive-compulsive disorder; and Frankie Sandoval, an improbably puckish crackhead.

But the real hero of Home Town is Tommy O'Connor, a grinning, bald young Irish cop. The only true hometown boy in the book, he knows the "human chart" of Northampton. Tommy's story -- his and his wife's struggle with infertility, the conflict between his ambition and his love of his hometown -- is the heart of the book.

Kidder is also excellent on the charms of old Northampton. He writes about small-town AM radio, for example, with affectionate, deadpan humor: "For nearly forty years, old-timers have awakened to a deep and slightly ominous voice, full of pregnant pauses, saying, 'Good morning. I'm. Ron Hall.' ... He reads the news. 'Employees and patrons of the pizza shop chased the man after the robbery. And beat him with a. Shovel!'"

Moments of wit are welcome in this mostly sober account. Kidder tends to focus on the details, trusting a vivid whole to emerge. But here he may have chosen too large and baggy a subject. Northampton keeps sliding out from under his careful gaze. No single image finally emerges, though many compelling ones do. --Katherine Catmull



A Rock and a Hard Place by Darryl Wimberley (St. Martin's Press) $22.95 hard

With the likes of Carl Hiassen, James Hall, Laurence Shames, and a passel of others shooting it out regularly in the same mosquito-clogged marshes and sunny beaches once ruled by John D. MacDonald and Charles Willeford, the Florida crime fiction field has seemed somewhat dangerously overfished in recent years. Apparently, however, Austin screenwriter Darryl Wimberley (The Radicals, Love Thy Father) wasn't too worried about all that when he penned his debut mystery novel, A Rock and a Hard Place, which takes place in the realistically redneck but fictional little town of Deacon Beach, located on the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State. An expert storyteller with a voice that bears the grit of experience and confidence, Wimberly creates a sense of ambivalence and danger in the interplay of sun and water and decaying enterprises commonly found at land's end:

The sun swelled an angry blister over a bright and empty sea. An abandoned, cypress-framed structure was propped below on a rotting pier, teetering over what was actually a bay that opened out, could you follow the buoys, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Barrett "Bear" Raines, an appealing protagonist with "series character" written all over him, is a by-his-bootstraps African-American police detective in Deacon Beach, which occupies "a coastal strip of pine and sand west of US 90 about an hour south of Tallahassee" in a county "not generally regarded as a region progressive in race relations." Barrett, a good cop with a schoolteacher wife, twins in the first grade, and a screw-up brother named Delton, owes his position on the police force to a local saloonkeeper named Ramona, who has "long dancer's legs ... eyes green as emeralds ... and one of those Lauren Bacall voices." When Ramona is brutally murdered and Barrett's brother Delton is implicated in the crime, Barrett finds himself painted into a corner, his world teetering on its foundations like a mobile home during tornado season. His brother is the top suspect, but he also gives Barrett his only solid lead toward finding the real culprit. Is he telling the truth? "Never has before," muses Barrett. Gun-running, extortion, poker, racism, tight-assed Baptists, and the usual forces of nature found in humid, gritty environments come into play in the hard-boiled procedural tale that follows.

Before reading this book, I wondered whether Wimberley's screenwriting box of tricks would manifest themselves in his novel. In the end, I have to say that Wimberley's practiced hand at the art of visual storytelling translates nicely to the printed page. The reader's attention glides from one viewpoint to another with the ease of a deftly handled Steadicam, with spicy tough-guy dialogue and plenty of tips of the fedora to all the right classic movies. Move over, Florida tough-guy writers, I think I see a hit series coming on strong. Some of those old hands are about due for retirement anyway. --Jesse Sublett



Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency by Al Franken (Delacorte) $23.95 hard

Al Franken's latest book, a political satire in the vein of his Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, chronicles its author's fictitious presidential campaign in the year 2000, his miraculous election, and subsequent brief presidency (he lasts all of five months before being forced to resign). Franken, for those of you without benefit of NPR or Saturday Night Live, is a satirist of the sharpest variety. And an unapologetic liberal Democrat. While it's hard to imagine what more can be said regarding the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Franken rightly figures that nothing more can be said about it and only reflects its absurdity through his fractured imagination.

The results are this sometimes hilarious, other times amusing, faux memoir. Part One is the Authorized Campaign Autobiography -- the slimmest portion of the book but, for my money, the hands-down funniest. Obsequious, pandering, and opportunistic, Franken's account of his path to the presidency is titled "Daring to Lead." The cover photograph of this book-within-a-book is a direct rip-off of Newt Gingrich's 1998 account of the Republican revolution, Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

Franken's rocky road to the White House is mapped out from his beginnings as the son of Christhaven, Minnesota's most bitter and disillusioned Jew, through his days at Harvard (where his entrepreneurial instinct comes to fruition with the founding of Fabulous Freaky Freakout Co., Inc., and its fully owned subsidiary, The Smoking Doobie Banana Brothers, Ltd.!), and his successful run on Saturday Night Live. Franken recounts his history up to the official start of his presidential campaign, then Part Two, the Campaign Diary, takes it from there.

Franken's campaign is built entirely on the issue of ATM fees (they're too high). He admits that it doesn't show a broad understanding of the complex issues facing a president, but it does have the advantage of being easy to repeat. And almost everybody finds those high ATM fees a pain in the ass. That's why the otherwise inept candidate taps into the fury of the American Everyman and becomes a folk hero. Of course, his wife's genuinely heroic rescue of a New Hampshire nonagenarian from drowning in a lake after an apparent driving error doesn't hurt, either.

Part Three consists of ace Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's chronicle of Franken's stunted presidency, titled "The Void." 'Nuff said. By Franken's own account, the best that he could hope for in terms of history's assessment of his administration is that it was something of a mixed bag.

The diary provides the bulk of the material in Why Not Me?, and while it is at times raunchy and hilarious, it never made me laugh uncontrollably on a city bus, arousing concern and suspicion from my fellow passengers, the way the campaign autobiography did. To be fair, it would be impossible -- not to mention exhausting -- to sustain that level of hilarity throughout an entire book. I mean no dismissive criticism when I describe this book as a one-trick pony. It is, and for a one-trick pony of a book, it delivers. --Barbara Chisholm



Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (Scribner) $25 hard

A stand of virgin forest is one that has never been touched by humans, but it is not a serene place. When Mother Nature reigns, storms crash in and gales gust, gnashing trees and tangling branches. And when human nature prevails, that's not always a pretty thing, either.

Close Range, a collection of stories about the range, the rodeo, and the fates of steadfast natives, is Annie Proulx's fifth book. The setting is the author's home territory, weather-bitten Wyoming. The subject matter is also familiar stomping ground to Proulx: Against a backdrop of droughts and drenchers, hailstorms, and lightning strikes that sizzle sheep into oblivion, the people, people pitted against unyielding lots in life and unyielding plots of land, evince both the strengths and the frailties of their character.

Sometimes people can be broken like a snorty bronc or thrown from the likes of a rank bull, which won't come as a surprise to those who read Proulx's Pulitzer-winning novel The Shipping News. But while The Shipping News harbored a redemption for the once-pathetic protagonist, some of these rich stories aren't given the space to play out to worthy conclusions. Here, they rely upon twists in the plot for a surprise ending, and more than a few have a spooky, supernatural bent. And Proulx once again proves that she can pack more punch with her poetic prose than can an able cowpunch: It is highly stylized, with plenty of colorful country colloquialisms. But for the most part, her signature style is toned down from her previous works.

Individually, the stories of Close Range can be entertaining, moving, rawly beautiful, and strong. "The Half-Skinned Steer," showing the lariat of fate that unforgiving Wyoming can throw, has already been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. And the moving "Brokeback Mountain," the story of a thwarted, lifelong passion between two ranch hands, was the recipient of an O. Henry Short Story Award. But collectively, this accumulation of Wyoming stories can leave a reader wondering about the point of it all. In Annie Proulx's case, this feeling may just be the point of it all. --Meredith Phillips



Life in the Air Ocean: Stories by Sylvia Foley (Knopf) $21 hard

The nine stories in Sylvia Foley's Life in the Air Ocean lead deep into the lives of the Mowry family of Carrville, Tennessee. In fact, the stories go deeper than many readers may want to go. While the dysfunctional family, especially the Southern dysfunctional family, has steadily inched toward cliché in contemporary fiction, Foley's steady voice allows her characters to present themselves as they struggle, alone, with their lot in the family domain.

The stories stand on their own but are also interwoven, with the same characters making appearances in each one. By the end of Life in the Air Ocean, the reader will never forget, for example, that Daniel Mowry once worked with missiles and now works with refrigerators. Foley uses his vocation as a metaphor for the chilled living that creeps into the household year by year: "This was him now -- a design engineer, an expert in home appliances. Not what he'd dreamed. He tried to tell himself he was making the world safer for women and children, but Iris and the baby hardly seemed to need him that way. ... At home his baby might be screaming; maybe Iris would cradle it and coo to it at the kitchen table. He knew he would go down under the house as soon as he could get away. He was digging himself a real cellar, tunneling down from the crawl space below the kitchen floor."

As if the image of a man burrowing into the earth below and away from his wife and child isn't disturbing enough, Iris is in much worse shape than Daniel. She is being driven mad, drowning in the expected routine of her life. She makes plans for a Japanese goldfish pond, throws the local library's Book of Knowledge into the Tennessee tar flats, and one day drinks a bottle of wine while sitting on the roof watching her baby cry in the carriage below. When Daniel returns home to this and is unable to connect with her, she purposefully slips off the roof, breaking her arm -- perhaps the very arm she thought about earlier: "It would be necessary to extend an arm, she thought, in order to be saved from extinction." Iris is proof that desolation can exist in any family.

Foley's sense of how someone's life slowly diminishes is painfully acute, and the struggle continues in the last two stories, which focus on the daughters, Ruth and Monica. Ruth has picked up drinking from her mother and a confused promiscuity from her father's abuse. Monica is married and pregnant, questioning "this spare life he had put inside her, could she love it more than necessary?" But the Mowrys' struggles to emerge and overcome offer scraps of hope -- and life -- in this bleak portrait of an American family. --Tyler D. Johnson



The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe McGinniss (Little, Brown, and Company) $25 hard

This nonfiction account of a Cinderella-story soccer team takes place in Italy, a nation where the black-and-white ball is a matter of obsession. The Miracle of Castel di Sangro centers on an Italian team that has risen through the ranks of professional football like no other. As Americans, we're used to strict divisions between the minor and major leagues of professional sports, while in most European countries, a team can advance to any level of competition, depending on performance. The best teams from one division replace the worst teams in the next-highest level at the end of every year. Imagine a team from New Braunfels earning the right to play against opponents from New York City and Los Angeles.

Joe McGinniss, an American journalist, traveled to Castel di Sangro, a small town of 5,000 east of Rome, after hearing of the meteoric rise of the local football team. He arrived at the beginning of a season in which the squad would compete at the second-highest level of competition in Italy. The squad moved up after a much-publicized "miracle" on the field at the end of the previous season. Fortunately for the reader, the author's status as an American interested in the "miracle" put him on everybody's good side, and he was allowed full access to the team.

Eventually McGinniss settles in, and we see him transformed into Castel di Sangro's biggest fan. This book, at its heart, is the story of sport and its place in a society. More importantly, it is the story of what a fan goes through during the course of a season. Joe's emotional well-being ebbs and flows with the wins and losses of the team. After arriving in the town, Joe attends the first game of the season. Immediately, he is overcome with joy when a goal is scored and yet worried sick that the lead won't hold. Anyone who has ever put their heart into a team will appreciate and empathize with McGinniss' plight. --Rod Machen



Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi (Scribner) $16 hard

Intimacy, Hanif Kureishi's latest novel, brings to our shores Britain's latest literary scandal. Allegedly modeled on Kureishi's well-publicized separation from his wife, this short book documents the inner turmoil of a suburban, yuppie writer named Jay, who is struggling to summon the nerve to walk out on his lover, their two children, and their cozy domestic haven. Waiting in the wings for him is a luscious, New Age hippie, who squats in flats around London. "If you want me," she says to him, "here I am, you can have me." Jay stews, he fumes, he rationalizes. Obviously, trading one set of comforts for another involves serious consideration.

No mistake about it; Jay is a bit of a jerk, and this 128-page monologue account of his dark night of the soul is terribly solopsistic. Despite the sorry terms of his departure, dumping this marriage may not be a bad thing. His partner Susan is contemptuous of him even when he's not behaving like a narcissistic twit and frequently lobs bitter, angry barbs at him. He alternately screws around on her and makes her miserable. If the sexes in this marriage were reversed, no one would expect the poor, beleaguered bride to put up with that for more than 20 minutes. Her departure would make her a heroine, and her sacrifice of her children would render her a noble martyr. It's hard to ignore the fact that their relationship is now hardly more than a social contrivance: "Every day there are deliveries of newspapers, books, alcohol, food and, often, of furniture. Our front path is a kind of thoroughfare for the service industries," says Jay. Their only point in common is their children: "If I tear myself from the boys, don't I tear them, too?"

Jay is hardly an admirable character, but remaining in a bad marriage wouldn't make him a better person or even a better husband. Fortunately, Kureishi is the rare writer who has a gift for literate philosophizing: "Desire is the original anarchist and undercover agent -- no wonder people want it arrested and kept in a safe place." This writer understands nobody wants to spend much time in the mind of an inarticulate rat. One suspects Kureishi knows we are only this eloquent on the page and in our heads. He also knows we are more like his antihero than most of us would care to admit. Like Jay, we are often convinced that what we meant to say is what we truly mean, that our intentions are more important than our actions, and that we never hurt others without adequate justification. Jay deserves some credit; he at least tacitly acknowledges the cruelty of his actions and understands he will be the sole beneficiary of his desertion.

Finally, Jay makes his move. He accepts his responsibility for this emotional debacle, albeit rather removed and abstractly: "I understand the necessity of blame -- the idea that someone could, had they the will, courage or sense of duty, have behaved otherwise. There must, somewhere, be deliberate moral infringement rather than anarchy, to preserve the idea of justice and of meaning in the world." Long, dark nights of the soul are rarely pretty, but Intimacy is an involving reply to that perennial question: Should I stay or should I go? --Stacy Bush


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