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Monday
Aug202012

Nowhere, Man

I just wanted to learn something about writing. 

When I discovered writer John Jeremiah Sullivan's startling essay Mr. Lytle, I bookmarked it as a refresher on what excellent creative nonfiction is whenever I feel adrift on the great white electronic expanse.  Sure that Mr. Sullivan had a great deal to teach me about the craft, I sought out more of what he's written, and found myself in his 2011 book Pulphead, wading around in about 6000 words on Axl Rose.

Not that Axl doesn't deserve 6000 words, necessarily. His bandanas alone merit at least a thousand. (Then again, this is the same author who informs the reader at the end of a highly detailed faux-essay about animals attacking humas that "Big parts of this piece I made up."  I should've left the book where I hurled it across the room.)  It’s just that Axl, and the place he came from, doesn't deserve this: 

"He is from nowhere... I’m not trying to say there's no there there.  I'm trying to say there's no there.  Think about it; get systematic on it.  What's the most nowhere part of America?  The Midwest, right?  But once you get into the Midwest, you find that each of the different nowhereness has laid claim to its own somewhereness...   But now I invite you to close your eyes, and when I say 'Indiana'.. blue screen, no?"

No.

The purported "nowhere" is central Indiana. And I've been through central Indiana, a lot-- Kokomo, to be precise.  It's the halfway point between between Cincinnati and Notre Dame, Indiana, and on my way back and forth to college, my family and I stopped there to pee and eat.  You can't pee and eat in nowhere.

If you go to Kokomo's Wikipedia page, there's a great deal of discussion about its history with the Klan, the fact that Ryan White was expelled from school due to his AIDS, and why Kokomo is considered the third-fastest dying town in America.  Its main tourist attraction is a water tower.  It's not the kind of place to which Groupon offers dazzling getaway offers ("Turn off your smartphone and sink yourself into the dreamy, timeless enchantment of the Kokomo Urban Enterprise Zone.")

Kokomo has a car dealership and a McDonalds and an art gallery or two.  And at this car dealership and this McDonalds and these art galleries, there are employees.  And these employees have lives--kids and parents and hurts and hopes.  They play in the city softball leauge.  They go to the movies, and they hate the movie or their eyelids flutter in the light of the lobby and wonder how they're not dangling from cliffs with James Bond anymore.  There's grass, and they mow it.  There's dirt, and their kids roll in it.  The Parks and Recreation Department sponsors an annual "Pooches in the Pool" day at the local water park.

It's not nowhere.  It might not an entirely pleasant place to live, but it's a place.  It has a history,  it has a present, and, as previously established, a McDonald's. (And what town in what nation doesn't drag ugliness with it through the ages?  My city once elected, as its political leader and public representative, Jerry Springer.) 

So yeah, even when we get systematic on it, central Indiana is not a nothing-ball.  It is there. For good or ill, it's there.

And so I close the book having indeed learned well from John Jeremiah Sullivan, because what he had to teach me was that writers, in our command of the the great white electronic expanse, have a whole lot of somewhere to answer for.

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