THIS IS NOT A TALE of Darkest Africa. This is not a tale of the Noble Savage. This is not a tale of Hot-Blooded Latins. This is not a tale of the Heathen Chinee. One dast not and ought not write of Africans or Native Americans or Latinos or Asians as quaint exotics; it diminishes not those cultures, but us, the readers, who once upon a time let that quaint Flower Drum Song travelogue-type writing tell us lies about the wider world, until the wider world explained that Flower Drum Song travelogue-type writers should go away and let other cultures tell their own truth. Another genre shot to hell.
The Man Who Ate the 747
by Ben Sherwood (Bantam Doubleday Dell, $19.95)
But Ben Sherwood found a way around that for The Man Who Ate the 747. He found one aboriginal group fine to fictionalize for writerly ends—quaint, simple folk whom no one's likely to send anthropologists or diplomatic envoys to examine.
He found my hometown.
The Man Who Ate the 747 is set in Superior, Neb., a 2,300-soul speck situated along the improbably yet aptly named Republican River and once home to the even more improbably named Ideal Cement plant. The cement plant is gone, as are most of the people I grew up with. The farm crisis of the mid-'80s strangled our roots and scattered our families. We had to go somewhere. Some of us came here.
In 747, a writer goes to Superior, where he meets a lady newspaper editor and a man who is eating an abandoned jet to impress her. The writer wants to write about the eating man, but the eating man doesn't want to be written about, and the lady editor doesn't think it's any of the writer's business. Hilarity and romance ensues. The writer ends up staying in Superior, where he and the lady editor live happily ever after.
New Yorker Ben Sherwood ended up in Superior because one of our restless roving youth told him what a quaint, heartland sort of place it was. The youth introduced him to lots of Superiorites for local color. Sherwood has an eye for the land, expanses that reveal their detail only if you'll wait them out. He gets the names right, to the delight of the folks at home who rarely see themselves reflected in the culture's eye. Every Superior resident knows all this because Sherwood's visits were front-page news in the local paper, the Superior Express, which in turn figures in the book. (The real Express isn't edited by a lady editor, though.)
AND THAT'S AS GOOD an entry point as any to explain why a lot of other Superiorites and I loathe this book, this bullshit, this Potemkin travelogue—because there ain't no lady editors in Superior, Neb., and no call for them. The kind of whimsical eccentric that would eat a vehicle for love would never survive the social Darwinism that takes place in small towns, where the population self-segregates in ways that look stupid even from two towns over, where they presumably have their own versions of Best Families, Wrong Side of the Tracks, and None of Their People Ever Come to Much.
Sherwood's lady editor with her yellow sundresses (!) would be tolerated, maybe, as long as her father, the previous editor, was still in town (as in the book), but I doubt you can buy a yellow sundress in Superior these days. Main Street is dead. The families still hanging onto their land—fewer each year—drive 60 miles to shop at Wal-Mart, to which many townspeople also drive four days a week for some of the few well-paying jobs available.
And we can thank the restless roving youth for that. Or rather, we thank his father: A local banker during the '80s, he's considered by many townspeople to be responsible for Superior's long death spiral and dozens of bankruptcies, forcing entire families off their farms. That vile man blew Superior's dust off his feet years ago for a government job in Lincoln; his son went to Yale, even while many of his bankrupted classmates couldn't make the payments on the state university. Funny how none of that made it into this heartwarming little tome.
Sherwood describes my town's streets, but not how our parents wait alone for visits from their wandering children; he gets the name of the gas station right, but not the hopelessness of the redneck girls out front bouncing their babies on the hoods of pickup trucks and talking about maybe taking the daddies to court for child support so they can afford to quit one of their three part-time jobs. He heard the unique cadences of local speech, but tuned out the polyrhythms of gossip and inescapable family history that swamp the newspaper's weekly efforts and drag our weaker, incautious citizens down. Clearly he talked to all the Best People while he was around, and he got his travelogue—bloodless local color, an exoticized group of natives whose world is, in this book, as embalmed and posed as a museum diorama.