Saturday, October 07, 2006

Book-A-Day #81 (10/6): Somewhere in America by Mark Singer

Singer is a solid New Yorker reporter, and this book finds him as the official heir of Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite writers. Trillin has been associated with the New Yorker for his entire career, and spent about fifteen years doing a regular feature (every three weeks) called "U.S. Journal" (the book collection of which I read late last year). The "U.S. Journal" department title was retired when Trillin stopped doing it in the early '80s, but it was revived when Singer went out on the road with the same purpose in 1999.

I wasn't entirely happy with Trillin's U.S. Journal when I read it (though middling Trillin is better than pretty good just about anybody else), mostly because it was full of snapshots of a time and place in American history that's awfully far in the past now. (It was around the time I was born, to put it into personal perspective.) Somewhere in America may have the same problem thirty years from now (I had similar concerns with Singer's early-80s bank-failure book Funny Money), but, for the moment, I'm in the middle of the cultural context of these stories, so they all work for me as reportage.

Somewhere in America contains nineteen essays, all originally published in The New Yorker, all about 14 pages long (so call them 7,500 words at best; non-fiction short-stories rather than novelettes). At that length, Singer doesn't have room for much analysis, and he really doesn't try -- he just lets the individuals tell their stories, and explains a bit about what he's found in this place. The topics of the stories are all over the map (literally, ranging across the whole continental US from 2000 to 2003); the subtitle, "Under the Radar with Chicken Warriors, Left-Wing Patriots, Angry Nudists, and Others," gives some of the flavor of the different subjects here. It's a good book for anyone interested in ground-level America right now, and I'd particularly recommend it for that reason to non-Americans (or people who live in less typically American areas, like New York and LA).

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