Read states

Pub date November 18, 2008

ISBN REAL America has just ended its quadrennial psychoanalysis of every state in the union, ultimately prescribing a mood enhancer. I’m glad that appointment is over, of course.

But I have to say I’m gonna miss watching the candidates participate in their grueling dance marathon with vain, neurotic America, a contest that involved gliding from state to state at breakneck speeds in a perversion of the open-road mythology. I’m gonna miss those blow-up maps of the nation, so detailed that CNN will have to team up with Google Earth to outyell the competition again in 2012. I’m gonna miss those tireless attempts to identify regional fears and tickle spots.

Relieved of most of the suspense after election night, I was appreciative of those states in the presidential and congressional races that resisted the biblical swiftness with which most of the country’s decisions were established. I’d clicked on so many interactive maps online in recent months that I still needed something to do with my hands. For a while I could continue to will my candidate that much more of a mandate and try to inoculate him from the threat of the filibuster, but the maps only stuck around for so long.

Luckily, we Americans can buy into our newly minted sense of awkward and ambivalent unity with a collection of essays about the 50 states, gathered by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey from some of the heaviest hitters in American letters. Even if unity isn’t really your thing right now — say you were embittered by the histrionic ironies dealt to civil rights in this election, or you see the inspiring national results as part of a depressing historical cycle that amounts to a giant game of chicken — this book is a good way to start keeping closer tabs on your compatriots. No matter the basis of your newfound interest, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco, 608 pages, $29.95) provides ample opportunity to either embrace the rest of the country or establish a healthy academic distance from it.

Putting 50 writers to the task of evoking a particular state generates, not surprisingly, some mixed results. Ha Jin’s account of perfecting his written English in Jesus-saturated Georgia (the variety of Bible versions thrust upon him served as a Rosetta Stone of American phraseology) is worth a hundred of Charles Bock’s solicitous recollections of a Vegas-pawnshop childhood. And while Mohammed Naseehu Ali’s take on Michigan is a little pedestrian, I aspire to overwriting as good as Carrie Brownstein’s "Washington."

But the project as a whole is a success — a nice surprise, given the perils of foregrounding the diversity of a country in the grips of corporate metastasis. Not that those corporations will necessarily exist in the near future. Or the states, even. Come to think of it, this book might become quite the collector’s item.