Tag Archives: The Hedgehog Review

The Cost of Being a Regular Ol’ American Place

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Some places have easy-to-describe landscapes: Southeastern California is hot and dry. Southern Mississippi is swampy and green. Culture is something else, though — even though the Midwest’s flatness seems to define it, people mistakenly conflate its geography with its culture, which eludes easy description.

In The Hedgehog Review, Phil Christman recounts his struggle to make sense of his native Midwest after he moves back there with his wife. People call the Midwest “flyover country” and “the American breadbasket.” They comment on its orderly grid of roads and towns and its endless fields. But when locals tell Christman this is “the middle of nowhere” and “just like anywhere,” he not only realizes a place can’t be both anywhere and nowhere, but that viewing the region as average and normal works to the Midwest’s own detriment. As he wonders what normalcy in America even is, he questions what effect the Midwest’s sense of its own average American-ness has on people, including himself.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

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