United States of Complexity
We certainly live in times of great divisiveness: politically, economically and racially. We live in a very complex country varying from region to region in its political persuasions, cultural backgrounds, and systems of belief. The following books take aim by their respective authors of truly seeking to understand a group of “other” Americans and why they believe what they do and why they pursue the things they do. At the end of the day, these authors show how very different we can be from each other but also how similar we all are in terms of yearning for purpose, community, acceptance, respect and success.
Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux
Renowned travel writer Theroux trades his wanderlust from ways afar to places closer to home, specifically the deep rural south. This is his first book dealing with his own country. Traveling over the course of a full year Theroux provides a fascinating portrait of this region of the United States by attending gun shows, church services, and interviewing wide cross-sections of its inhabitants, many of them disenfranchised. You’ll see the south in a whole new light from the keen eye of a seasoned traveler.
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere by John Gregory Brown
Piggybacking off Theroux’s Deep South I thought I’d recommend John Gregory Brown’s novel. Any book billed to be in the literary tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy has my attention. Set in Virginia, the protagonist Henry Garrett has recently escaped New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches. Emerging from loss, both physical and emotional, Garrett finds himself hunkered down in a motel and soon involved in a tragedy. A number of characters, and the healing power of art, help him navigate his way back to redemption.
Strangers in Their Own Land : Anger and Mourning on the American Right, A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild departs her hometown of Berkeley, California and travels to the conservative bastion of Louisiana bayou country. For a period of five years using a kind of research described as “exploratory” and “hypothesis generating” she meets with a wide array of people in the community and places herself firmly therein to see how life “feels to people on the right.” She attends everything from Trump rallies to Pentecostal Church services to fish fries. She challenges herself (and succeeds) to truly listen to these people in order to gain an understanding of why they believe what they do.
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America by Chris Arnade
Like others before him such as Jacob Riis (1890s), Walker Evans (1930s), and Michael Harrington (1960s), Chris Arnade takes us on a journey around the United States interviewing and profiling those people in the "back row” of society. He left his Wall Street career and started documenting poverty and addiction in the Bronx. He decided to broaden his fieldwork and left to travel the United States interviewing similar “back row” people struggling with poverty, racism, and addiction. Written over a period of two years and finished months before the 2016 Presidential election Arnade spotlights those folks who, through no choice of their own, are stuck in places of seeming hopelessness. He finds the humanity in all and calls on everyone, those in the "front row" and those in the "back row," to listen to each other and try to understand what each values without judgment.
Great American Outpost : Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier by Maya Rao
Like Theroux, Hochschild, and Arnade, Roa sets off in search of America, specifically North Dakota and its historic 2006 oil boom and the breakneck community that came with it. Rao, a correspondent with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, immersed herself in this California Gold Rush-like phenomenon meeting and interviewing the good, the bad, and the ugly. She interviews truck drivers, businessmen hit hard by the recession, Iraqi War veterans who streamed in for high-paying jobs, and a former Iraqi doctor who was aghast at the encampments where people stayed. "There are places in Baghdad that look like that." Truly a metaphor for American capitalism at its best and worst. When the gig was up folks left as quickly as they had come leaving in their wake empty trailers and oil equipment.