State by State, installment the first

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey recently edited State by State: a Panoramic Portrait of America, in which some pretty awesome writers each take a state (always their home state?) and write an essay on it. I’m excited to read the whole thing (mostly) in order, but when it came the other day I jumped to my home state and my current state right away, and both were great.

Connecticut

Rick Moody begins writing about Connecticut by talking about the Merritt Parkway, driving north from the state line through Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan. He barely departs Fairfield County in the essay, which was not a problem for me as that is my Connecticut. He even managed to include a painting by Maureen Gallace among the photos in the book. I just so happened to see her work once at the Art Institute several years ago, walked over to a painting and said: I’ve been there. Looking at the label, I realized I really had. (Unfortunately, I can only find a teeny tiny picture, but here it is.)

He perfectly describes my hometown, one of the cities amid great affluence.

[Exit 38] is technically in Norwalk, which in the early seventies was the lower middle-class town in Fairfield County. My father’s parents lived there during the period I’m describing (1968-1975). Among the other prejudices that were harbored in my family was the prejudice that lower middle-class towns were homely and cheap. And so we use to drive through Norwalk at Christmastime to look at its garish Christmas displays. We laughed derisively. That my grandparents felt comfortable in Norwalk, however, hints at the class anxieties roiling beneath the surface of my family, as in the state generally.

Moody grew up, despite a broken home and fall from grace from Greenwich to Darien/New Canaan/Redding, in those affluent areas, and his descriptions of Round Hill Road bring me back to a time when that was on my route to work. You can see horses running around in people’s front yards there. And despite the alcoholism and cocaine addiction and terrible malaise Moody describes so well, I still think these are some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Illinois

Dave Eggers’s essay on Illinois is pure Eggers, so it’s silly, over-the-top, etc. It focuses on how Illinois is number one at just about everything, and as a transplant I sort of disagree, but I like to let him have his fun. In spite of a paragraph devoted to his messiah, Barack Obama (note to all writers: this election will, someday, be over; please stop shortening your shelf life like this!), and his paean to Midwestern friendliness (I am a surly New Englander), the essay is lovely and he captures one of the greatest fascinations for this newcomer:

That park’s team, the White Sox, has fans that hail from any one of suburbs made possible through permutations of the following seven words: River, Lake, Ridge, Stream, Woods, Forest, and Park (452).

To anyone who has never looked at a map of Chicagoland: this is completely true. And bizarre.