Postcards from the middle

Do you want to know what's wrong with America? South Dakota. It's flat and featureless and entirely too big. No place that wretched merits a 400-plus-mile drive just to get to the other side. I don't know who the residents think they're kidding with their garish, pro-life, Christian Right billboards. If God has washed his hands of any place in the USA, it's got to be the "Mount Rushmore State." They can't even drum up a decent nickname.

It's Day Three of my solo, cross-country odyssey, and I'm experiencing serious reservations about my ambitious plan to see America's heartland by car. Were I not at the halfway point, I'd steer my battered Toyota into the path of an oncoming semi and simply end my misery. But I've come too far to quit.

My first stop, Missoula, Montana, turned up some fun surprises. I found the town's only gay bar, and on beer-bust night, with all the suds you can chug for just five bucks. People were friendly, which is to say they roped me into doing tequila shots (with Fresca chasers—does that strike anyone else as weird?), and someone even graciously made out with me in the men's room. I stumbled back to the Holiday Inn when the DJ played that fuckin' Cher record for the fourth time . . . or maybe it was only the third. I was pretty hammered.

The drive along I-90 the next afternoon was full of gorgeous scenery, complemented by a realistic speed limit. I cranked up Pet Shop Boys' version of "Somewhere" from West Side Story and did a major Julie Andrews turn, singing at top volume as I barreled over the hills. But after Wyoming, the mood and landscape turned grim quickly. Maybe those kids at the Subway put something funny in my turkey sandwich at lunch today, but a palpable malevolence seemed to hang in the humid air the deeper I drove into South Dakota's expansive nothingness.

Last night a friend of mine sent an e-mail observing I'm traveling through the part of America that he doesn't "get," and how he felt he shared more in common with a French lorry driver than some kid in Sioux Falls. I snorted derisively from my room at the Best Western, dismissing his opinion as that of a snob. Having spent almost half my life in a small Virginia town and Bloomington, Indiana, I consider myself a man of the people.

If I could, I'd apologize to my pal and his imaginary truckin' amis right now. But I'm in a cheap-ass motel in Fairmont, Minnesota, and getting an outside line for a modem connection isn't included in my budget rate.

What I'd forgotten until I hit the open road was how much those people I fancied myself a man of don't take to my kind. Never mind that I sport no facial hair, tattoos, or visible piercings, and am clad in the most conservative of summer duds. When I walked into a Taco Bell in Butte, Montana, folks whispered and stared. Middle Americans can smell an outsider like a dog senses fear—and it's a scent that displeases them.

Middle Americans are a funny breed. They still listen to Pearl Jam. They like lots of MSG in their Chinese food (and it's all "Chinese"—regardless of province, or even country, of origin). The General Tsao's Chicken I sampled in Montana practically gave me a coronary. Judging from all the huffing and puffing I heard on the gentlest trail at Devils Tower, Wyoming, Middle Americans could stand to aerobicize more often.

And they certainly would not dig Louis Phillipe, a West London denizen who performs elegant songs that sound featherweight but prove surprisingly complex, not unlike those of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, or the 5th Dimension. Coincidentally, it was comparisons to those two artists in a review of his Ivory Tower LP a decade ago that prompted me to seek out his sophisticated fare in the first place.

A Kiss in the Funhouse (on Le Grand Magistery), Phillipe's premiere offering aimed at American audiences, compiles selections recorded for the Japanese Trattoria label. It's fine wine and caviar blintzes and silk stockings and a stroll along the Riviera, stitched into 23 blissful pop gems rendered in an achingly tender tenor. Hints of Ellington and Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg and cool jazz and vocal madrigals echo throughout this collection, but Phillipe distills his myriad influences into his own splendid essence.

Every night when I stop to rest, I've been playing this CD, as a charm to ward off those Middle Americans just outside my door who'd wish me ill simply for being an aesthete. And a Democrat. And a homosexual. If it ensures my safe passage all the way to New York, I'm sending the artist flowers.

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