Road trip! Well, the literary kind, anyway.
Editors for the Paris Review and McSweeney’s have assembled the usual suspects and then some for this interesting assortment of essays about the fifty states and District of Columbia. The goal is an homage to the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project, a WPA program that created an even wider portrait of the United States back in the 1930s. There are names to attract many kinds of readers: Jonathan Franzen on New York, Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island, S. E. Hinton on Oklahoma, Rick Moody on Connecticut, Louise Erdrich on North Dakota, and Sarah Vowell on Montana, to name just a few. There’s also a listing of basic facts for each state and some interesting lists at the back that rank the states in some surprising categories.
As with any collection of essays, this is a mixed bag, and I suspect that different essays will resonate with different readers. Some are reverential in their boosterism while others are sadly critical of recent developments or bewildered by a strange visit. Some catalog the entire state while others focus on a telling detail. Everyone will head to his or her home state first and I feel torn about David Rakoff’s take on my Utah home, which while not untrue, and somewhat entertaining, focused too much on overworked stereotypes of polygamy. Ditto for Tony Horwitz, who examines Virginia by looking at its history of death and violence.
This is a book to read over time. Skip essays if you don’t respond after the first page or two. Dabble in the states that you know the best. Never read more than two or three essays in a sitting and savor them: Let the ideas and connections that you draw percolate before you move to the next essay. It took me months and three different checkouts to get through this book, and I think I enjoyed it all the more because I took my time. Another blogger complained that this book suffered from “NPR voice.” I agree; many of these quirky essays do take the tone of NPR pieces, but to me that’s hardly a criticism.
Personally, I enjoyed the graphic essays by Alison Bechdel on Vermont and Joe Sacco on Oregon. John Hodgman, who portrays the “PC” on the Apple commercials, is also a gifted humorist (try the list of hobo names in The Areas of My Expertise, for instance) and his story of Massachusetts is both funny and poignant. Ha Jin contributes an effective paean to Georgia from an immigrant’s point of view. Anthony Bourdain is his usual mix of funny, foul, and thoughtful as he considers New Jersey. Charles Bock takes a look at his childhood in a Las Vegas pawnshop for the effectively nostalgic Nevada entry. Dave Eggers mixes pride and parody in his look at Illinois’s many firsts. But read State by State yourself: I’m sure you’ll find your own list of favorites.
Check the WRL catalog for State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America