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Book Review

Writers state their case × 50

Alabama to Wyoming, a broad mosaic, in many styles

By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / December 28, 2008
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Send an outsider, in this case Canadian writer Craig Taylor, into Delaware, and he will return to introduce you to a lot of people, including one he calls "the Retiree," who says: "The sales tax is our weapon. We're small. Small like a thumb and useful like a thumb. Can you imagine this country without thumbs? We have a purpose, and we make things a damn of a lot easier for the rest of the USA."

Or commission a dispatch from a writer living in an adopted state, as the editors of the original essays in "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America," also did. They asked, for example, author Alexandra Fuller, who was born in England and raised in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia, to write about Wyoming, where she has lived for years. Fuller translates for readers the politics of wolves and windstorms that kill cattle: "Ranchers are compensated for predator attacks, but not for the weather, maybe because, although men and women have tried, you can't shoot the wind."

Or call upon a native of a particular state, as editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey did with novelist Louise Erdrich in North Dakota, and local knowledge comes quickly. "You can be odd [in North Dakota]," Erdrich writes, "but not weird - you cannot, for instance, sit naked in your pickup truck."

Travel can take many forms, and in "State by State," a collection of 50 essays by 50 writers inspired by the 1930s Federal Writers' Project, the individual journeys combine for an intimate and often abstract odyssey through America.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen carefully constructs an imaginary interview with "New York State's Publicist," "New York State's Personal Attorney," "The New York State Geologist," and others, all in an effort to sit down and talk with "New York State" herself. Here is a line from "New York State's Historian," who explained engagements of the Revolutionary War: "Our first battle of interest: Harlem Heights. Situation dire. Washington and his shaky amateur army perilously bottled up in Manhattan. . . ."

The range of this writing, whether set in land with amber waves of grain or purple mountain majesties, or nearer to the music-hearted sea, is impressive and almost always unexpected.

Writes Weiland: "To everyone we said: Tell us a story about your state, the more personal the better, something that captures the essence of the place."

So you end up at a brick ranch-style house in Georgia with the poet and novelist Ha Jin, and follow John Jeremiah Sullivan through the early history of Kentucky on the trail of a man named Constantine Rafinesque. Joe Sacco chronicles his relationship with Oregon in the form of a graphic story. He draws lots of umbrellas.

"State by State" is a big book, with statistical tables in the back; each state also opens with an accounting of population, state bird, and the like. As with so many journeys, it is best to pick a destination or two at a time, and linger. If you turn too quickly from one chapter to the next, weariness sets in. Then, for example, an essay on Ohio by Susan Orlean feels like the last leg of a too-long road trip. It's as though you're dazed on Coca-Cola and junk food, hell-bent on hustling on Interstate 70 past Columbus, not at all interested in following Orlean as she trades cornfields for auto factories. Which is a shame, because Orlean ends in the suburbs of Cleveland, along Chagrin Boulevard, near a river of the same name. There she captures perfectly emotions probably felt by anyone who has lived anywhere not as dramatic as the Rockies, or the Pacific, but a fine place to call home just the same.

And then there's Massachusetts. John Hodgman, who among other pursuits is the "Resident Expert" on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," grew up in Brookline, worked at a now extinct diner in Downtown Crossing, and still has a house at the western edge of the state. He makes the case that Massachusetts is a place where people preserve an "absolute inability to be near anyone different." He delivers this gem of a distillation that carries from past to present: "Towns would gather by necessity around a central green and turn their backs on one another. We would sit by the fire and brood and make brooms and bridles and such, and since familiarity among neighbors was scarce, we would instead, through sheer Yankee ingenuity, breed contempt from unfamiliarity. The result of this contempt: an ironic 'commonwealth' of closely knit groups of isolationists."

Follow Hodgman to the end, though, and it becomes clear he loves his home state. In this collection, that is often the case. Hard histories are distilled through a long lens, and there the good is found.

In California, William T. Vollmann, the novelist, recaps dreams of conquistadors and irrigationists, then wanders the Sierra foothills and out to the sea. As is often the case, he goes to a unique place, in this case an S & M club in San Francisco. Then, after talks with a day laborer from El Salvador, he takes final flight in thoughts of naturalist John Muir and "foggy flower-meadows" and ends with this: "I love my darling California so much that I would believe in any sweetness."

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

STATE BY STATE

A Panoramic Portrait of America

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors

Ecco, 608 pp., illustrated, $29.95

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