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A Stranger in the Heartland : BIRD, KANSAS by Tony Parker (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 368 pp.; 0-394-55794-9)

August 06, 1989|James Kaufmann | Kaufmann lived for several years in an Iowa town even smaller than Bird, Kan. and

The logic that animates the idea that an outlander could see American culture with greater acuity than the inhabitants themselves is the same logic that drives those locked in the grim dance called marriage to seek counseling. The designated stranger, whether counselor or culture critic, has the advantage of fresh eyes.

The America that Robert Frank saw through his viewfinder in the 1950s, for example, was so different from the sanitized version made popular during the Eisenhower years as to open up a new (photographic) universe. Frank made the familiar strange, and the strange seem familiar. Not for nothing did Jack Kerouac exclaim of Frank, "The man has eyes!"

Today, things are different. Images of American culture proliferate throughout much of the world and have conspired with various other forces to create an America that's part myth, part fact. Exactly which part is real and which is not confuses everyone, the inhabitants themselves in particular.

So it is that foreigners come to report on some aspect of the United States can arrive disadvantaged enough by preconceptions of America that their vision is blurred. Which brings us to Tony Parker's "Bird, Kansas."

"Bird, Kansas" is an oral history of a small Midwestern town built from extensive interviews. That the book was tape-recorded is too obvious--Parker should have taken more care to hide the seams. It gives everything an air of realism to go with rough cuts and raw speech, but do we really want to be reminded how ungrammatical most speech is? For safety's sake, the names of the town and its residents have been camouflaged.

The book's purpose, says Parker, is to offer "a more realistic impression of everyday America than the one conveyed by 'Dallas,' 'Dynasty,' 'The Colbys' and 'Miami Vice.' " That's not asking much, is it?

Our initial view of Bird is through the windshield of the county sheriff's car. He says things such as: "So now this here's Main Street, we usually say just Main. Might not be exactly Maple Street, Los Angeles, but we like it well enough: Least the prices aren't so high." There's a conspicuous "Mayberry, RFD," factor at work here; it's easy to imagine Parker smirking. (Now what was that about escaping from TV America?)

"Bird, Kansas" ends with the chapter, "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave." It's a flag-waving opportunity, bloated with comments such as the one from a guy who thinks that those who don't believe " 'My country right or wrong' . . . can't call theirselves real Americans and they shouldn't be allowed to."

And this, from a beautician: "Sure America throws its weight around: Because it has a right to." It's patriotism in caricature, and it's an easy target, but jingoistic spouting off is not typical of everyday life in a small town. That "Bird, Kansas" begins and ends locked in an embrace with stereotype is troubling.

OK, so what about those legendary small-town values? One of Parker's subjects, back for a hometown visit, explains: "Yesterday, I left my purse in Gover's (grocery), and when I got home I said to my Pa I should call them. He said, 'You don't need, they've already called to say they've got it for you safe.' " It didn't even have my address here in it, but everyone knew I was Pa's daughter so this was where I'd be."

Of course. Exactly.

The gallery of types Parker exhibits is rich and representative. There is the failed farmer, the high school student living in dread of nuclear holocaust, a jailbird, the town bum, a librarian, the grocery store manager, a lawyer, and even a black woman who blurts out: "I hate all white people."

Too many of the people Parker talked with spend too much time explaining their Americanness--the kind of thing that any American reader will take for granted--to Parker. Parker also has an annoying habit of using contractions in a way I've never heard in this part of the country. (The police chief says, "I've three full-time men . . ."?) Maybe it's different in Kansas?

But there are times when "Bird, Kansas" sings. In the case of Lucille Richmond, who never quite got her life right, the song is country & Western, sad and elemental. Parker catches her looking back:

"Sometimes I think maybe I didn't love either of those men enough, you know: Maybe that was it. With either of them if they'd asked to marry them, I'd have gone with them any place in the world. But it could have been I never made my feelings to them sufficiently clear, and they couldn't find the courage to ask me in case I turned them down. Sometimes I think that."

A Bird automobile dealer who came up the hard way remembers his unhappy childhood, recalls his usually absent father: "I saw him once drunk in the town one day: I still have this picture in my mind of him standing there on the sidewalk, swaying from one side to the other like this, look at me like he kind of recognized me from some place. But he didn't say he did, just went on standing and swaying there while I went right on by."

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