If you like McSweeney’s and Believer products then you’ll probably really like this book; and, likewise, if you hate both brands then you should probably stay away from this. State by State is not officially a McSweeney’s publication, but Sean Wilsey is an editor at McSweeny’s Quarter Concern so it pretty much is. A bunch of people from the McSweeny’s and Believer crew appear in this book.
I’m fairly agnostic about McSweeney’s publicans (there seem to be some pretty divergent opinions on them), and I ended up feeling the same about State by State. The book isn’t bad, but It’s not great.
With 50 different writers there are bound to be some ups and downs, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I’d hit an interesting essay, but I’d go through a draught of boring ones. I can’t believe that the contributors to this book are the finest writers from their respective states.
There are just some really bad essays in here. Rick Moody pens an awful essay about his drugged up friends. Will Blythe writes about New Hampshire–of course he isn’t from there and only manages to write about the New Hampshire primary and reflects on the Salem Witch Trials. Jim Lewis writes a three page essay on Kansas, in which he reminisces about a time he got laid there. Lydia Millet writes about moving from Manhattan to live in Arizona, only to bemoan the locals. David Rakoff whines about the Mormon church in Utah.
As others have mentioned, the worst essay in the book is by William T. Vollmann, who writes about California. Vollmann writes about environmental degradation and curses our materialistic society for about 12 pages. At the end of the essay, he celebrates his love of freedom by going to an S&M club.
Now, I grew up on the West Coast and spent a bit of my childhood with relatives in California. I could think of dozens of topics to write about, so I scratch my head at why the editors decided to go with Mr. Vollmann’s screed.
As others of noted, the common themes of most of the books essays are: environmental degradation, the destruction of native Peoples, materialism, and the Reagan Administration. My problem with this isn’t that these writers are liberals/ progressives and are choosing to write about topics dear to their heart; It’s just that most of the writers are so mirthless and dull. Why would I ever want to sympathize with them? Clearly there are problems with America, but most of these people make me want to jump off a cliff; equally, in such a diverse country, could the editors not find any conservatives, moderates, or libertarians to write anything? Surly they could have found a couple writes.
On that note, I expected some political discussions in the book, but I didn’t want to bludgeoned in the head with politics. I wanted this book to be an escape from our 24/7 election cycle and culture wars; instead, Mr. Vollmann and others wrote about politics in the most uninteresting manner possible.
So, that’s the bad.
There is a lot of good in this book. The book had a few gems that I would encourage anyone to read. Ha Jin writes an essay about his time in Georgia that is wonderful. Mohammed Naseehu Ali writes a heart warming reflection on immigrating from Africa to Michigan. Jacki Lyden writes about Bosnian immigrants in Missouri. And, as usual, Jhumpa Lahiri writes a wonderful essay about her home state of Rhode Island.
Other essays aren’t great, but they are generally entertaining. Carrie Brownstein does a fairly decent write-up on my home of Washington State. John Hodgman (the PC from the older Mac vs PC commercials) writes about his home state of Massachusetts. And, Dave Eggers, someone who I’m not normally a fan of, writes a pretty funny, and somewhat convincing, argument in favor of Illinois being the greatest of all the states.
So, I give this book a generous three star rating. A few great essays hold up many mediocre minds. I’m not sure if I would recommend buying this book; I checked it out from a library. If you do, I would just recommend not reading too many of these in one sitting.