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11.26.08

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Phaedra

The Literary Map : The endplate from 'State by State' is a key to its 50 essays.

Union of the States

Literary stars and fascinating insights in a big-thinking compendium of essays on the 50 states

By Molly Zapp


It's safe to say that the vast majority of Californians don't often consider the lives of their fellow Americans in the 49 "other" states. Ask a group of Californians about their travel experiences, and tales of spiritual rejuvenation in India and wild nights in the Czech Republic will bubble forth, but rare is the California native who has considered visiting, say, North Dakota or Tennessee. The collective obliviousness of Californians is one that often lumps Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri into one vague geographical and cultural Red State stew, which directly results in people from Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri historically thinking Californians can be stuck-up assholes who are completely ignorant of their own country.

Enter 2008, an election year in which the many different groups of folks who make up the U.S. of A realized it's way past time to start talking about both our similarities and differences. Like a literary Barack Obama, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America seeks to address the cultural and regional variances that pump the lifeblood through these United States. Inspired by the WPA American Guide series of the Depression-Era Federal Writers' Project, the book is a collection of 50 essays by 50 authors--one for each state, plus an afterword on Washington, D.C.

The state profiles are a mix of histories, personal narratives, social commentaries and humor. Anthony Doerr's stunning portrayal of the native Tukudeka in Idaho--and the tribe being literally hunted down by white cavalrymen in 1879--haunts with its aching history and near-holy beauty. A-list contributors include Jonathan Franzen (New York), Jhumpa Lahiri (Rhode Island) and Ann Patchett (Tennessee), but lesser-known writers dazzle the reader as well. Carrie Brownstein of the late band Sleater-Kinney flawlessly connects the mentality of the drifters and transients living off the grid in Washington to the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the Seattle grunge scene of the '90s: "Exposure can be strange and disorienting for people who spend most of the year under cloudy skies. And when you feel exposed the urge is to disappear," she writes.

Manhattan resident, native St. Louisian and part-time Boulder Creek resident Jonathan Franzen "interviews," among others, New York State Herself. Like countless other Americans who have moved to New York City because, well, it's New York City, Franzen writes, "I met, in myself, on my first day in New York City, the person I wanted to become."

Unlike the Electoral College, every state in the book has an equal chance to have its voice heard, and the national nuances explored and intricacies relayed are so multifarious that they'd induce motion sickness if they weren't so utterly fascinating and well-written. State by State overflows with celebratory trivia and uniquely American ironies: graphic novelist Alison Bechdel informs that Vermont was its own country for 14 years; parts of Delaware obtain power from a plant actually named "Hope Creek Nuclear Generating Station." Like a quintessential microcosm of the Blue State/Red State divide, Kevin Brockmeier details a bumper sticker feud between "Decency" and "Liberty" in Little Rock, Ark.: "There was a brief hiccup of Tolerance, I am told, but I was away from home and I missed it," Brockmeier writes.

And then there's home. Whereas nostalgia-drenched Beach Boys songs and Joni Mitchell odes pay homage to a wonder-filled, Pacific Coast Highway view of the Golden State, William T. Vollman's literary portrait of California is that of desert-filled and urban-sprawl-infested Interstate 5. "This route exaggerates the ruination of my home state," he writes of the 5. "Who believes in the 'California dream' anymore?"

Every essay should be savored slowly and individually, not fast-tracked. "The history of our planet is one of absolute relentless change," writes Doerr, and surely that change includes America. State by State succeeds as a whole because it gives word to a genuine United States of America that is infinitely more complex than a Red vs. Blue, pro-choice vs. pro-life, white vs. black view. It's an America of Shakespeare in the Park plays in rural Montana, day laborers and BDSM clubs in San Francisco, coked-out rich kids in Connecticut, Chinese-American bibliophiles in Georgia and Yup'iks subsistence fishing and bartering in Alaska. It's an America full of hope and contradictions, of greed and overwhelmingly giving neighbors, with a racist, bloody and beautiful history that still gushes onto the page.

On the eve of 2009, we're finally talking and writing about what in this country is great, painful, quirky, deeply flawed and damn-near perfect. After 50 states and 500 pages, State by State might even make the States of America live up to their first name: United.


Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey; HarperCollins; 572 pages; $29.95 hardback


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