Much great American writing is regional in a way that British or French writing never has been. Most of the best writing coming from the States inhabits a place which apparently feels no pressure from the great metropolitan centres — Annie Proulx on the Texas panhandle, Cormac McCarthy on the Mexican border territories, Jane Smiley on the Midwest. Even when a great city is in the vicinity, as in Anne Tyler’s or David Simon’s very different considerations of Baltimore, we feel a specific regional flavour emerging; John Cheever’s fictions of elegant suburban life have a distinctly north-eastern flavour which evidently still weighs heavily with writers of that particular region.
It was a good idea of the editors of this volume to embark on a systematic treatment of America at a moment when we are asked to think of the country again as a collection of harmonious but very different voices. Fifty writers, of different levels of distinction — some very distinguished indeed — have been asked to write about each of the 50 states. Some of them write about their home states, others about states which mean something special to them, one or two merely about a visit to a particular state.
The results are a little mixed, and some of these pieces embody the familiar and depressing present-tense vignette which so disfigures the travel pages of colour supplements: ‘We tour a famous cave nearby, and nobody remarks on my unusual silence as I walk through chambers of shining underground fortresses and cathedrals.’ Others resort to PR releases, issued by local government: ‘Omaha is a wealthy, highly “livable” city with successful large corporations, low unemployment, terrific public schools, nice houses and trees, restaurants filled to capacity, a thriving arts and music scene, even a new cinematheque.’ (How many cities in the world have fallen back on that unconvincing ‘thriving arts and music scene’, which usually means five abstract sculptors and a terrible string quartet?)
Pass over the weaker contributions, including one Jim Lewis talking about himself instead of Kansas on the grounds that there is a ‘Kansas of the Mind …[and] the reverse is true as well. The mind is a kind of Kansas, or mine is anyway’. (You’re your own jokes at this point.) Anthony Doerr takes advantage of poor old Idaho to write the Prose Beautiful, which actually, and I believe unironically, contains the phrases, long since laughed out of existence for most travel writers, ‘Welcome to Idaho’ and ‘Forget the tourist brochures’.
There are 20 or so highly entertaining contributions here. The editors tell us that three contributors fought over the distinction of portraying New Jersey, and Anthony Bourdain won. His hilarious memoir contains an account of his pyromaniac youth — ‘we started with the routine melting of molded plastic army men and the burning and immolating of other toys, but quickly graduated to burning and blowing up vast tracts of Meadowland’. At the end, on a book tour, he gazes out at some town, ‘Austin or Minneapolis or St Louis’, sees a ‘grimly predictable sequence’ of shops, and concludes that ‘I could have been anywhere. I could have been in New Jersey.’
Perhaps the country, and indeed the world, is all becoming much more homogenised to the level of New Jersey. Jack Hitt, a name new to me, has some very funny stories about South Carolina — ‘too small to be a sovereign nation and too large to be an insane asylum’, in a 19th-century legislator’s words. There was the man who was brought there as an infant, lived his entire life in the town, and when he died in great old age, the locals wrote on his gravestone that ‘We miss him as one of our own’.
It’s noticeable, however, that many such local stories tend to have a historical edge. Kevin Brockmeier’s account of a war conducted through bumper-plates, between people declaring ‘Speak Up For Decency’ and those preferring ‘Speak Up For Liberty’, is admittedly very amusing (‘There was a brief hiccup of Tolerance, I am told, but I was away from home and I missed it.’). But I’m not convinced it represents a peculiarly Arkansas narrative. Occasionally something specific does emerge, as in an interesting piece by Joshua Clark about the ‘ghost tours’ of New Orleans — they tried marketing them as ‘history tours’, but nobody came. And sometimes you feel that there is a regional reality which the writer has missed — fans of HBO’s sublime series, The Wire, may be a little let down that the account of Maryland stays so firmly in where-north-meets-south territory.
On the other hand, some of the pieces which don’t join in with the regional tendency are the most successful, such as a hilarious piece by Said Sayrafiezadeh about a gormless trip to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. And any suggestion of ‘authenticity’ in the narrow sense is made complicated by a good range of pieces about the essential American experience, that of the immigrant, among which Jhumpa Lahiri’s lovely piece about her family in Rhode Island stands out.
Oddly enough, the one place in the whole country which, after reading this volume, I experienced a passionate desire to go to immediately was Utah, just to see the giant Mormon boulevards of Salt Lake City. David Rakoff makes it sound just like Pyongyang with better supermarkets and stranger underwear. Tara Bray Smith, on the other hand, succeeded in persuading me that whatever else happens in my life, I will never, ever go to Hawaii.
There are some exceptionally distinguished writers here — among them Dave Eggers, Jayne Anne Phillips, Louise Erdrich, Ann Patchett, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen and the wonderful Joshua Ferris, elbowing Carl Hiaasen’s reputation out of the way with a brilliant piece on Florida. The book is adorned, too, with some charming statistics, telling you that Tennessee has seven separate State Songs, West Virginia has a ‘toothlessness rate’ of 40.5 per cent, Kentucky has 2.4 roller-coasters per million head of population, and the difference between the highest and lowest oil consumption per capita is a factor of some 385 per cent, between Alaska and Connecticut. All very fascinating. I might even go there one of these days.