Sunday, December 24, 2006

Book-A-Day #158 (12/21): Off Ramp by Hank Stuever

I got into another one of those "I don't want to read pretend stories" moods earlier this week, and so I rummaged through the to-be-read bookcase for a book of reportage. I came up with this one.

Stuever is yet another Oklahoma writer (like Mark Singer, author of Somewhere in America and Funny Money) who went elsewhere to write -- in his case, Albuquerque, Austin, and D.C. -- as a newspaper reporter. This is the first book of his I've read -- I think it's his first book, period -- and it's a nice collection of essays about ground-level American life.

Stuever introduces this book by saying that he's interested in the "Great American Elsewhere" -- essentially the edge-city/suburbia landscape of franchised retail, frontage roads, and aging infrastructure -- and then presents about a decade's worth of longish reportage pieces (on mostly everyday things like weddings, bowling, funeral homes, and self-storage, with the last section collecting his sidebar reporting on big-news stories like Chandra Levy, 9/11, and the D.C. snipers).

I enjoyed this quite a bit, but I had an odd reaction to it. In about the third or fourth piece (probably the one on the TV show Trading Spaces), I began to suspect Stuever was gay, and then started searching for clues one way or another. (Eventually, I got to the Acknowledgements at the end, where he thanks a boyfriend -- I took that as a Major Clue.) And that got me examining my own reactions. If a straight guy likes oddball middle-class culture, it may be a bit quirky, but that's all. But if a gay guy spends his time reporting on the Miss America pageant and KOA "kampgrounds," suddenly it starts to feel campy and kitschy -- even if he's doing exactly the same kind of reporting. There's a certain attitude towards that kind of pop culture that's expected of gay men, and I could read it in even when it wasn't really there. Let me be clear: I don't think Stuever is distancing himself from his subjects ironically, but the expectation is that a gay man would only be interested in these things as mediated by irony.

I was a weird realization: that just knowing something about the author's personal life could make me think about the same essays in a different way. But the book is what it is either way, and for readers interested in reportage about American lives (as I am), this is a good one.

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