What book gets your region right?

What book gets your region right? February 16, 2015

town pound

It’s hard to say which is more satisfying: a book that introduces you to a fascinating, new, unfamiliar world, or a book which is set in a time and place that you know intimately, and which really nails it.

For me, The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert is a great example of the latter. It’s set in a fictional small town of Darby, New Hampshire, and man, is it familiar. It gives us painfully accurate picture of the small town full of foster children, incestuous shack people, pompous little fief lords, renovating interlopers, and limping, buck-toothed junk car collectors, who see no difference between the beauty of the snow on a stone wall and the beauty of a burnt-out washing machine riddled with bullet holes for target practice.

The Dogs of March (first in a series, The Darby Chronicles) introduces us to Howard Elman, foreman at a weaving factory in the early ’80’s. He hasn’t yet figured out that he’s going deaf, and he hasn’t yet figured out that there is nothing he can do about the way his world is coming apart and being rebuilt for some new purpose that doesn’t mean anything to him.

Here he appears around Thanksgiving in the dorm room of his son Freddy, the first of his children to go to college, with an early Christmas present:

Father and son looked at each other as if each had come across a crime. Both spoke at the same moment. Freddy said, “‘Lo,” and Howard said, “Where’d you get that goddamn beard?”
“I didn’t get it; I grew it,” said Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard. This phrase he could utter in a hundred ways, to convey degrees of sarcasm, exasperation, frustration, criticism, irony, cosmic outrage, even affection; a phrase that filled in when he had no other words; a staple–like rice or potatoes or refried beans–that could be fed into the maw of a starved vocabulary.
“You’re always yelling at me,” yelled Freddy.

Dark hair enveloped his face from the bottom of the eyes to the throat. A pink slash showed where his mouth was. His ears were partially hidden.
“You look like a goddam A-rab,” yelled Howard.
“The word is Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Arab, Arab, Arab,” yelled Freddy.
“Ain’t you smart,” yelled Howard.
“Oh, I ain’t smart,” yelled Freddy, with emphasis on the “ain’t.”
“I’ll smarten you up,” yelled Howard, taking menacing steps forward, rifle at order arms, its butt skipping along the floor.
Freddy stood his ground, teeth chattering, clenched fists quivering at his sides.
The two stood breathing fire on each other for a few seconds.
Then Howard backed up. He realized he had been wrong. For  man who had never learned to apologize, he did his best. He brought the rifle to present arms, and said, “Merry fucking Christmas.”
“No, not to me,” said Freddy.
“Trade it for a shotgun, then,” said Howard.
Freddy shook his head no no no no and retreated.
Howard remained in the middle of the room, holding the gun in offering.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with this rifle,” he said.
“I’m not interested in killing animals,” said Freddy with a shrug of hopelessness.
Dread rolled over Howard. College had pulled his son apart, scattered beliefs, habits, and loves like so many bits of a machine, and was now rebuilding him into a customized version of Freddy Elman.

The arc of the story follows a series of losses, errors, and painful discoveries, but it is somehow not a difficult book to read. Along with the brutal and tragic are dozens of little jokes and lavish gifts of beauty, as Howard, his long-suffering, teardrop-shaped wife Elenore, and his circle of malformed friends and privileged enemies rearrange themselves into a new world order — while other things, like Howard’s duty to strike back against the savagery of the dogs of March, never change.

A beautiful, frightening, tender-hearted book. And if you’ve ever been to a town meeting in a small town, you won’t want to miss chapter 13, where the wealthy, litigious newcomer tries to ram through her own agenda; the delusional, power-hungry selectman makes a tactical error; the white-bearded old loon is, as usual, the only one who talks sense, and the single-minded fire chief just wants a new firetruck, and can’t seem to get it.

What book or movie would you recommend, if you wanted someone to understand the place where you live?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Matthew

    Big Bad Love by Larry Brown.

  • Can I choose television shows? Between them, “Corner Gas” and “King of the Hill” do a good job of capturing the part of the West that I hail from. (Mix about five parts of the former with two parts of the latter for the best verisimilitude.) Sure, they don’t plumb the depths or anything, so I hesitate to mention them in the same breath as the novel you describe, which sounds almost too powerful and true for me to tackle; but on the other hand, I swear I personally knew almost every single character on each of those shows growing up.

    As for where I live now…well, it wasn’t until I moved to the Deep South that I started to realize that “The Dukes of Hazzard” was actually a documentary. (I’m only half kidding here.)

    • simchafisher

      Ha ha, Sarah said the same thing about King of the Hill.

  • Lydia

    Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O’Connor, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt.

    • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

      South Georgia I presume? 🙂

  • Joseph Nelson

    Hmm, I think if you want to better understand the place I lived, watch Rosanne, the first couple of seasons. I grew up in Minnesota, but Rosanne really captured the poor, working class, acerbic, and pseudo-Midwestern town (and home) in which I grew up. No other movie set in Minnesota really portrays the rural area I grew up in (although a slew of them portray life in the Twin Cities fairly well.) Additional note, only people up north speak like they do in the movie Fargo, and even that is starting to fade away.

  • MTDave

    No longer live in Wyoming, but Annie Proulx’s two collections of Wyoming based short stories absolutely convey what life is like in the part of the state that isn’t billionaire infested Jackson Hole.

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      I grew up and still live here, and I never found much connection with her work. “The Meadow” is a good one for Wyoming’s lonely places, appropriately told from the PoV of the land. Longmire captures some of the ranching attitudes, the ideal people want us to be, but misses much of the rest of the complexity–enough to be quite frustrating sometimes. I’ve found that every town here has it’s own distinct personality. “My Friend Flicka” does a good job–the book, NOT the movie 😛

      • MTDave

        Ever read anything by Mark Spragg? His “Where Rivers Change Direction” is fascinating. And there’s a great section on living under the constant hammering of the Wyoming wind.

  • Susan Mathis

    A Time to Kill by John Grisham did the best job I have ever seen of capturing all the best and worst in the deep south in the 1980s. To Kill a Mockingbird captures the region in a timeless sort of way.

  • Caitlin Marchand

    We move around a lot. For my home in the Pacific Northwest I’d pick The Living by Annie Dillard. From my time in the Florida panhandle I’d pick Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings of Yearling fame. For our time in Enid, Oklahoma I’d pick the incredible Ken Burns documentary the dust bowl. Don’t know yet for northern Louisiana.

  • MeanLizzie

    Simcha you are so much better connected to your region than I am to mine. I can’t think of a book or movie where the churches are ugly, the beaches are empty, everyone drives and SUV and everyone who succeeds comes back wealthy and addicted to something. I may have to write it myself: Malled to Death: The Long Island Story.

  • LiveOaksandSpanishMoss

    There have been lots of stories about the South, but it’s a big place with many subcultures (people forget that.) If you want to know about the real South Georgia – not Gone with the Wind – read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. It’s part autobiography, part history of the long leaf pines that got deforested. Wonderful book.

  • Lydia

    Transplanted, but so far, so good. I like the weird.

  • Suzanne

    I suppose we’re all supposed to pick gritty stories with lots of divorce, foster homes, drug abuse, and women shooting their ex’s hound dog just to watch it die. But really, the books that get my region better than any I’ve seen are the Southern Sisters mysteries by Anne George. They are set in Birmingham, Alabama and, except for the regular murders, life looks a lot like life in Mississippi.

  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    Not a book, but the movie Frozen River was, for me, startlingly familiar. It’s set on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river in upstate NY – I grew up just across on the Canadian side. It was… all very much true to life. Great movie, too.

  • Leeandra Nolting

    “A Confederacy of Dunces” is a documentary about New Orleans, as far as I can tell after 12 years of living here.

  • Em

    The flip answer: a cross between Raymond Chandler and the movie Clueless.

    But honestly, I haven’t found a book that captures the SoCal I know and love, full of middle class children-of-immigrants, swirling around the freeways and through the malls, eating food from every corner of the world, under the bright blue sky. And striving and dreaming and getting pushed farther and farther out into the valleys, living in all-enveloping ethnic communities and yet continually thrown together with a hundred other cultures: Mexican and Salvadorean and Korean and Filipino and Armenian, etc etc etc.

  • Emily Kimmel

    I’m from Corpus Christi TX, but the movie I’d pick is NOT ‘The Ballad of Billy Jean’, lol. Probably the closest thing I’ve seen to what Corpus is like is the movie “Selena” (the one about the Tejano star who died, and the movie where Jennifer Lopez got her big break. The admiral from Battlestar Galactica plays the dad). Gives you a decent idea of what the culture is like down here- VERY Hispanic.

  • Mark Johnson

    The Rainy Season and Winter Tides by James Blaylock. Both are ghost
    stories set in Orange County, Southern California. Also Expiration Date by Tim
    Powers, another ghost story but kind of science-fictiony, set in Los Angeles.


  • Anything written by Tim Dorsey or Carl Hiasen . The kid books that Carl wrote are a score for the FLA. Rawlings got old Florida, but somehow no one has nailed it like they need to.