Thursday, September 18, 2008

Small Towns

I've been taking a breather the past few days because (a) I realized I was far too plugged in to the day-to-day ups and downs of the Presidential race for anyone's good, including my own; and (b) my family, specifically my children, wanted some time with their old man. This post has been brewing for a while, so if it's irrelevant to our current moment, the only thing I can say is that it still needs to be said.

In her acceptance speech, Gov. Palin quoted Westbrook Pegler on the many vaunted virtues of folks from small towns. This theme is an old one in American politics, particularly in recent years as the culture wars have continued apace. It has been a staple of American political culture that urban life not only depersonalizes individuals, it strips them of the values cultivated by family and community. As someone who grew up in a town of around 5,000 people, and who spent his early adulthood in the Washington Greater Metropolitan Area (as it is officially known, encompassing both Washington, DC, its VA and MD suburbs on up to Baltimore and its environs), I can speak to this directly, but have chosen, instead, to use a piece of writing to point up the ridiculous idea that small town folks are inherently more virtuous than city-slickers.

I realize people might chuckle, but 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King is the perfect vehicle for examining the question of the virtues of small town people. If this seems odd, or even absurd, please bear with me as I defend my choice of writing.

This book concerns vampires in a small town in Maine. I first read it in 1978 or so, picking up my sister's copy. The book made me an instant fan of King's writing. One of the things that attracted me to the book, and brings me back time and again to it, is the image he creates of small town life. Growing up in Waverly, I knew the people of whom he spoke. I knew the life of the town. Except for the One Haunted House in town in the book (The Marsten House, which is a real house in Maine, and where the author resides), Jerusalem's Lot could have been Waverly. When I was in college, I realized that the novel was as much about the social psychology, including deviant sociology, of small town life. The characters in the book, even now, do not seem so much caricatures or types as real people I have known - drunks, gossips, outcasts, dedicated teachers who slog through life either beloved or ignored by their students, the whole milieu of middle school life with its social code and hierarchy, the hidden secrets so many people wish to hide, whether criminal or simply marginally deviant. One of the points I think King was making was that small towns would be the perfect place for a vampire to assume control (indeed, the vampire in question, Barlow, makes the point in a general way) because, unlike the rarefied air of urban life, the pressure points in small town life are much more vulnerable. Except for those secrets that lie so far deep, or are so well-hidden, everyone knows most of the life of everyone else, and the guesses at the parts not known are usually pretty good. The extra-marital affairs, the secret sexual longings, the shady business deals, the lives teetering and petering out towards hopelessness and meaninglessness - these are well-known and the topic of much discussion and analysis. A vampire, with the need to puncture the bubble of bonhomie in order to intrude itself in to this fragile web of denial and deceit, would find such a place congenial.

That's what frightened me most. I could easily see my little hometown falling under the spell of a Barlow very easily.

While many in recent years have reverted to a certain series of platitudes concerning the inherent virtues of small town life, I think 'Salem's Lot is a good antidote to the idea that small town life produces people necessarily more virtuous than suburban or urban population centers. The book reminds us that, in fact, the vices, crimes, and desires of residents of small towns are far more visible, and the cracks in the facade we create around our rural communities are far more vulnerable, than in cities.

This is not to say the opposite of Gov. Palin's obviously rhetorical point, viz., that small town folk are somehow inherently more morally vicious than others. Rather, it is to say that small town folks, like everyone else, are a wonderful mixture of good and bad. The major difference, for me, is this - the crystal walls we build around our lives in small towns is much more easily penetrated. Rather than an opaque wall around our private lives, being crystal it is not only more prone to shattering, it also means our private lives are much more visible to those outside.

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