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A guidebook from the gut

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Special to The Times

New Jersey was the most hotly contested state. Not in any election, but in the fight to see who would write about it in a new essay anthology “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America,” edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Ecco: 572 pp., $29.95). The victor was author-chef and TV traveler Anthony Bourdain, who writes: “New Jersey, even now when the whole country looks like Jersey, is still, anachronistically, a punch line.”

Fifty states, 50 writers. Some, like Bourdain, are exasperated; a few -- like Dave Eggers, who includes Abraham Lincoln and “snack foods” as why Illinois is “Number One” -- lavish praise. Most fall somewhere in between, examining changing landscapes. Wilsey, in town visiting his mother who featured prominently in his 2005 memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” says he and Weiland wanted the authors, while thinking about place, to make it personal. “Do something that only you can do,” Wilsey recalls prompting the contributors.

Leaning forward, bubbling with excitement in a booth at Hollywood’s Kitchen 24, Wilsey says he wanted the essayists to capture “how you see or understand this place and that can only really be in this place. Something that is so deeply about a place and couldn’t really be anywhere else.”

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The editors were inspired, as was Alistair Cooke before them, by the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide series. Those 48 volumes, published from 1935 to 1943, were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration. Hundreds of writers -- including Zora Neale Hurston and John Cheever -- were employed to write histories, detail commerce and industry, even map out driving tours. At 500-plus pages each, the guides were certainly thorough. Yet can descriptions of the legislature and agriculture convey the essence of a state?

That’s where Weiland and Wilsey’s advice came in. Joshua Ferris, whose debut novel, “Then We Came to the End,” was a finalist for a National Book Award last year, was assigned Florida, where he spent part of his youth. (While many authors, like California’s William T. Vollmann, are natives, others are transplants; a few visited their states explicitly for this collection.) Ferris skipped the statewide overview. “I’m afraid if I tried it, everyone would be asleep before I even had a chance to list all the state’s counties,” he writes in an e-mail. Instead, he describes his adolescence on Key West: “To give a rural boy his own body of water is to give him the grace necessary, at least in part, to forgive the adults responsible for relocating him. The canal was unwalled and tree lined, fifteen feet deep and sludge bottomed, the water amber colored and scummy with white flotsam, really ugly. I jumped in every day.”

Relocation comes up often. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose award-winning fiction explores immigrants’ experiences, writes about her family’s move from tiny Kingston, R.I., to a nearby town. (I also grew up in Kingston, and Lahiri and I were classmates in elementary school.) “It was the first displacement that I was conscious of in my life,” she says by phone. “Somehow, a mile away, a mile down the road, we were in a different territory.”

Her migration, on its tiny scale, mirrored her India-born parents’ larger one. In the new town -- ironically, Peace Dale -- her family’s otherness became difficult. “I was much more conscious and self-conscious of who we were and where my parents were from,” she says. “Partly it was that I was getting older, and I was noticing things in a different way.”

Perhaps it is the perspective gained from these migrations that helps hone the talent for noticing things. “Mobility is a huge theme,” Wilsey says. “Everybody moves around and is always from somewhere else and going back somewhere.”

This raises some interesting questions: How do we define home? Is it the place you came from, or the place you chose? Is it the place where you felt free, like Ferris? Or where you no longer feel secure, like Lahiri? Does its absence make the sense of home more acute -- does leaving help us recognize what is essential and unique about the place we came from?

If “State by State” answers these questions, it does so in a patchwork. For some, like Charles Bock on his father’s Las Vegas pawnshop and Rick Moody on the Connecticut parkway that stretched between his divorced parents’ houses, home is defined, in part, by its destruction. Its essence exists only in memory.

But for others, who return to places that are surprisingly recognizable -- Susan Choi to Indiana, Ann Patchett to Tennessee, Susan Orlean to Ohio -- there is an essentialness that remains deeply affecting. How, Choi wonders here, could her old “house lurk there, unchanged apart from the trees, so that it could leap forth and bludgeon my heart?”

Neither is it your typical guidebook material. Instead, “the whole book is kind of a collective memoir,” Wilsey says, “about what it means to be an American.” What exactly an American is, or how each state is characterized, is a fascinating subject as the presidential election looms. Now is the time, he says, “to think about the states in a way that was deeper than the way that we’re all being forced to.” In its personalized way, “State by State” is an antidote to the oversimplifying red state/blue state rubric.

It is most successful when an author first comes to a state as a fully formed writer. The adult eyes and analytical skills -- even when tuned to the most personal of experiences -- bring a heartfelt understanding of the complexities of place. “I know my presence here is no boon to the place,” Lydia Millet writes about her home in the Arizona desert. “It would be far better without all of us -- without me, self-conscious and trying to walk softly; without my harder-living compatriots; without the ugly hubbub of all of us bringing our litter and noise and concrete to paradise. But I can’t help myself. This, to me, is the closest I’ve ever come to the eternal and the sublime.”

Wilsey thinks of this as a road trip in book form, but it’s more of a helicopter ride, touching down on life in each state, sometimes traveling back decades, even as far back as the Native Americans who first called these mountains and valleys home. The WPA guides drew literal paths for their readers, but this is more subtle: You will find your own connections between North Carolina and North Dakota. It starts to become clear that how where we come from defines who we are is both intensely personal and ineffable, that it is a thing of memory, and it may come from the place that we have no right to call home but that we come to love. And odds are, reading “State by State,” that you’ll fall for every state a little, even if they remain tremendously hard to explain.

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Carolyn Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy at www.latimes.com/books. She is also the host of www.pinkyspaperhaus.com.


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