The Betrayal of Rural America : FAR FROM HOME: Life and Loss in Two American Towns, By Ron Powers (Random House: $22; 317 pp.)

Clifford is The Times' Urban Affairs writer

"Far From Home" is a spirited tale of democracy in two small American towns. Unlike Alexis de Tocqueville, who set the standard for this kind of writing, Ron Powers does not bring back good news.

Rural America is being plowed under, boarded up or malled over; its history tarted up in theme parks and olde towns; its residents bought out or taxed off ancestral land. Powers divides his narrative between two towns, Cairo, Ill., and Kent, Conn., both facing extinction but in different ways: "death by atrophy and death by renaissance."

Powers' portrait of rural America is reminiscent of the ghostly glimpses people used to get from Pullman car windows. It recalls Steve Goodman's railroad song about "passing towns that have no names, freight yards full of old black men and the graveyards of rusted automobiles." Arriving in Cairo, "a violent and sorrowful little town" near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Powers proceeds to its abandoned core. "This was Commercial Avenue as it remained from the previous century . . . brittle hulls of warehouses, balconied hotels, saloons, storefronts, the dangling remnants of iron lace and figured cornices, the friezes and the woodworking worn nearly smooth by weather."

Powers is in familiar territory. "I am a town boy," he writes. A former network television commentator and Pulitzer prize-winner, Powers grew up in Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo., and wrote a book about that town.

Besides a native son's pride in the backwater, Powers has a command of local idiom, a well-honed b.s. detector and an eye for the weirdness of village life. He writes, for example, about the custom of "tweezering," popular in Cairo at one time. Instead of fighting, the young men of the town would "tweezer" their enemies, throwing them down and plucking the hairs from their nostrils. In Cairo and, to a lesser extent, in Kent, Powers exposes what is most interesting about Main Street--its oddball mixture of innocence and unctuousness, menace and mercy, boosterism and hopelessness, as if the Optimists' Club and the asylum shared the same building.

Powers does his share of rhapsodizing about rural life, about "the freedom of movement for children" and "the profundity of country nights as opposed to the vapor-lit menace of the urban darkness." But the heart of Powers' case for the country is more prosaic. It's the plain, warm familiarity of a meal at the family restaurant where, he writes, "I wanted to stay all evening, running forkfuls of rib-eye through swabs of A-1 sauce and looking at baby portraits on the wallpapered wall and eavesdropping on the talk of the (state) troopers, while the honky-tonk music came thumping . . . " It took him back, he writes, "into a recurring dream of mine, a dream in which everything is sort of subterranean and safe and interconnected, and everyone knows and is at ease with everyone else, and things are safe: a dream of a perfect town."

Powers did not go back to rural America merely to mourn its passing but also to write about a handful of people fighting to save their towns, from economic hemorrhaging in the case of Cairo and from terminal gentrification in Kent. His narrative moves back and forth between the two towns, musing, probing, as he watches people struggle to hang on to a way of life.

If there is a hero to this story it is a redoubtable geezer named Richard Poston, who arrives in Cairo with the fervor of a Fuller Brush salesman determined to drag the town from its torpor, reinvigorate its economy and marshal its citizenry against communal despair. Poston, who appears to have stepped right out of "The Music Man"--he constantly listens to John Philip Sousa tapes--is almost too good to be true.

As cracker-barrel American as Dale Carnegie or Johnnie Appleseed, Poston is one of those people who shake your hand to a fare-thee-well and use your first name one too many times in conversation. Early on, Poston gives the author the full treatment: "My relationship with this town now, Ron--I'd call it a mass love affair. It's intimate. Businesspeople open their books to me. Women tell me about their problems with their husbands. Husbands tell me about their problems with their wives. I walk into a meeting, it's not unusual at all for three or four women to come kiss me on the cheek."

It's not all hot air. As the author says, Poston, decked out in his red cardigan, gray Hush Puppies and sliver of a necktie, is more than natty crackpot. After a lifetime studying how towns work, Poston came to Cairo with a small community-development grant and an unassailable belief in the redemptive power of town-meeting democracy. His strategy: If you can get people talking to each other, believing in themselves, eventually they will take their fate in their hands.

Slowly, he awakens people to the possibility of an economic revival in Cairo. More than once, Poston is a dead ringer for the author, railing against the greed, conformity and passivity that allow a town like Cairo to dry up and die: "The urban core becomes a cesspool of racial enclaves, the urban extremities an assortment of mortgaged dwellings and impersonal population globs. Human interaction and individuality are lost to batteries of computer disks and programmed systems devoid of flesh and blood! Steadily and systematically, we are moving toward uniformity and compliance as scores of millions are reduced to spectators of the passing scene."

Poston has a hard row to hoe in Cairo, a town that has been preying on itself from its infancy as a riverside refuge for runaway slaves, dispossessed Confederates, prostitutes and gamblers to modern times, when it gained notoriety as a racial battleground during the 1960s and early '70s. (One eerie chapter is devoted to the character of Rev. Larry Potts, pastor of the Cairo Baptist Church and a man who once beat an elderly black gardener to death with a baseball bat.)

Despite it all, Poston comes surprisingly close to his goal of shaking Cairo from its groggy cynicism. Lucky for us he never gives up. His harebrain hot-wires the book. In the land of Twain, Poston is a living reminder of the characters who first made life along the Mississippi memorable.

The other half of the book takes place in Kent in western Connecticut, where the author has a weekend home and where the locals, for better and worse, have been bushwhacked by success. Dating back to Puritan times, Kent was one of those timeless hamlets that used to dot New England hillsides, supporting a little farming and a couple of boarding schools.

A bit like Woodstock or Santa Fe in its appeal to reclusive artists, writers and wealthy eccentrics, Kent was a snob's paradise. But that was before the arrival of the "metro-imperialists," Powers' term for the Reagan-era parvenus and the real-estate developers eager to market the country feeling and help the new rich become landed gentry. The result: instant suburbia--condos replacing barns, boutiques where hardware stores once stood--all of it done up in a Disneyesque parody of a New England town.

Worse than that, writes Powers, the nouvelle country town has no ballast left. Storekeepers, teachers, police officers can't afford to live there any more. The old lose their land to rising taxes. The young must look elsewhere for affordable houses. Gone, too, is the tradition of volunteerism that towns like Kent depended on to sustain their fire departments, ambulance units, library associations and vital governmental functions.

It is the loss of community values that disturbs Powers most about the changing nature of American small towns. "A notion had been growing in me for several years that if town life in this country was indeed over, so was the essential culture rooted in obligation and the perception of a common good."

Powers doesn't offer much hope for the old values. In Kent, there is a desultory campaign to prevent big-city speculators from gobbling up what was left of its rural landscape. But Kent is too genteel a place to launch a counterattack against the metro-imperialists, and, by the end of the book, even Powers has sold his weekend retreat and is moving his family to Vermont, that last outpost of Arcadia. Things are no better back in Cairo, where Poston, grasping at straws, has become a shill for the theme-park scenario. He dreams of a multimillion-dollar restoration of Cairo's scrofulous riverfront, complete with a 19th-Century paddle-wheel showboat.

Powers' tale of two towns requires some suspension of logic. In Cairo we are to root for development, in Kent for benign neglect. One town should be made over, the other left alone. Powers' organizing principle in both places, however, is that Americans no longer seem to have the time, or the gumption, or the wherewithal, to take a stand on behalf of the places that nurtured them: "A vast economic Darwinism drove the destinies of towns in America, not the dreams of grass-roots patriots nor even the petty greed of the local moguls. Weak and abandoned towns died in America, or lingered in a kind of brain-death. They were perhaps the lucky ones. The fate of the robust town was annexation into the suburban madness."

Powers probably is right to be fatalistic. Rural America is disappearing. The book notes a recent census estimate that by the end of the decade nearly three-fourths of the population will be living in major population centers. America will have become a nation of sprawling supercities.

Despite his pessimism, there remains something uplifting about Powers' book. At the twilight of the century, he is raging against change. He says it's a change for the worse, and it's hard to disagree with him. His passion is contagious.

Turn up the Sousa. Get out the tweezers.

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