“Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography,” said Oscar Wilde. I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to fictional treatments of small-town life in America, most of which are the work of bright, embittered émigrés who couldn’t wait to grow up, move to the big city, and write novels, most of them bad, about how much they hated their childhoods.
I, on the other hand, grew up, moved to the big city, and wrote an affectionate memoir that is mostly about Smalltown, U.S.A., a place that I loved greatly yet still chose to leave, not because I hated my childhood but because I knew that (as I made Louis Armstrong say in Satchmo at the Waldorf) you’ve got to do what you’re made to do. I was made to do things that I couldn’t do in a small town, so I went elsewhere to do them. Yet I never stopped loving Smalltown, and it is because of that love, clear-eyed yet enduring, that I find it hard to see the world I knew in the books I read. Only two of them, James Gould Cozzens’ The Just and the Unjust and John P. Marquand’s Point of No Return, suggest with anything like sympathetic accuracy the real-life town where I grew up.
As I’ve observed on this blog, and in my book Crunchy Cons, accounts of small-town life are usually written by those who have left, and often those who left with bitterness. People who stayed, and who are happy with their lives, often don’t think to write memoirs. When I was researching The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming last year, and re-reading my late sister’s 1980s-era letters to the man who would become her husband, the most striking thing to me was how happy and satisfied with life she was. What she had all of us want: the feeling of being in the place you were born to be in, doing what you were meant to do. Harmony. Like Terry Teachout, what I was born to do I couldn’t do in my small town, at least not back then (it’s different now, at least for me); if I was going to have what Ruthie had, I needed to leave. Of course there was also the matter of bullying, and of feeling like an outsider in my own family. Sorting out the reasons I left was not easy.
As you longtime readers know — and the future readers of Little Way will learn — Ruthie’s struggle with cancer and her death illuminated the strength and beauty in the small town I left behind, a strength and beauty that I had missed, and that I found that I wanted and I needed. So I came back. It’s not a prodigal son situation. I don’t regret having left, and believe me, I would a thousand million times rather stay away forever and still have my sister alive. But that’s not how things worked out, and I’m grateful that some good came for me and my children out of the suffering of my sister their aunt.
Anyway, what I hope readers of Little Way will see is this small town — and small-town life — as it really is, not as it is idealistically, either utopian or dystopian. As I point out in the book, the breakthrough for me was coming to understand that the bonds that held me back when I was a teenager were the same bonds that held Ruthie’s family and my folks together throughout their crisis. The things that drive you crazy about life in a small town are pretty much the things that drive you crazy about life in a family.
It’s not possible for many people to live in their small towns, just as it isn’t possible for many people to live in close contact with their families. Still, an important lesson is that you can’t fully share in the particular goodness of small-town life if you don’t also fully share in the pain and the limitation it imposes.
My filmgoing experience isn’t nearly as broad as Terry Teachout’s, but I’d say the only accurate portrayal of small-town life on the screen I’ve seen is in “Friday Night Lights.” I didn’t see the boy I was in that show — geeks were not part of the narrative, except peripherally, in Landry’s band — but the emotional intricacies of life in a small town were routinely portrayed and explored with uncommon accuracy. I’m not sure why that is, but every small-town friend I know who watched FNL agreed with me on this. Julie and I bought Ruthie every season on DVD when she was sick. She watched them all, laying in her bed dying of cancer, and she loved them as much as we did. Dillon, Texas, seemed very, very familiar to her.
If anybody ever wants to make a movie or a TV series from Little Way, then Friday Night Lights (the TV series) will be the model, at least if I have any say-so. I’d say the book is pretty much Steel Magnolias meets FNL. I have never loved characters from a TV show or a film as much as I loved Coach Taylor and the people of Dillon. I cried like a baby when the series ended.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)