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November 09, 1986|Jason Berry

WHITE TOWN DROWSING by Ron Powers (Atlantic Monthly: $17.95; 320 pp.). "White Town Drowsing" recounts the author's return to his home town, Hannibal, Miss., after years away. Now a CBS commentator in New York, Ron Powers wonders "what was lost, and gained, by growing up in a small town like Hannibal and not leaving it--but living on there as an adult, the child's impressions not sealed and preserved, as mine had been . . . but transmuted by an adult's gathering sense of limitations and temporariness."

Powers finds Hannibal, long famous as Mark Twain's hometown, at a poignant juncture. The stylish young mayor has launched a plan to celebrate Twain's Sesquicentennial on lots of borrowed money, the idea seeded by a Manhattan promoter who specializes in such events. To his credit, Powers eschews the sardonic language Twain would very likely have inveighed, scoring solidly with a more restrained tone: "Hannibal's looming fate--its dismantlement as a town and reconstitution as a cartoon mockery of its townhood--appeared to be only a matter of time. Blessings and curses."

Powers achieves the considerable feat of telegraphing, early on, the bust to come while maintaining a narrative pace that builds through a series of memorable vignettes and character sketches. Entwined with his own search-for-origins is a romping tale of cultural collision, spilling into local politics. The town photographer, a surly born-again Christian, defeats the mayor in a stunning upset, only to end up facing impeachment proceedings. There are even secret tapes.

Along the way, planners, pitchmen and ordinary townsfolk converge in a salvage operation as festival days near. Music agent Mad Dog Manus is vintage stuff: "I'm not a normal rock person. I don't drink, take drugs. I try to be a respectable type in an unrespectable area. I've been 12 years in the business . . . I toured with Canned Heat. Now I've got my own business in (neighboring) Quincy--Mad Dog Productions. I came to the sesqui because there's a certain virginity of trust here. OK?"

Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, displays sophisticated comedic gifts. The more timeless story, of a slick entertainment-development industry exploiting authentic American traditions, makes for a work of surpassing eloquence.

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