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The Betrayal of Rural America : FAR FROM HOME: Life and Loss in Two American Towns, By Ron Powers (Random House: $22; 317 pp.)

August 18, 1991|Frank Clifford | Clifford is The Times' Urban Affairs writer

"Far From Home" is a spirited tale of democracy in two small American towns. Unlike Alexis de Tocqueville, who set the standard for this kind of writing, Ron Powers does not bring back good news.

Rural America is being plowed under, boarded up or malled over; its history tarted up in theme parks and olde towns; its residents bought out or taxed off ancestral land. Powers divides his narrative between two towns, Cairo, Ill., and Kent, Conn., both facing extinction but in different ways: "death by atrophy and death by renaissance."

Powers' portrait of rural America is reminiscent of the ghostly glimpses people used to get from Pullman car windows. It recalls Steve Goodman's railroad song about "passing towns that have no names, freight yards full of old black men and the graveyards of rusted automobiles." Arriving in Cairo, "a violent and sorrowful little town" near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Powers proceeds to its abandoned core. "This was Commercial Avenue as it remained from the previous century . . . brittle hulls of warehouses, balconied hotels, saloons, storefronts, the dangling remnants of iron lace and figured cornices, the friezes and the woodworking worn nearly smooth by weather."

Powers is in familiar territory. "I am a town boy," he writes. A former network television commentator and Pulitzer prize-winner, Powers grew up in Mark Twain's Hannibal, Mo., and wrote a book about that town.

Besides a native son's pride in the backwater, Powers has a command of local idiom, a well-honed b.s. detector and an eye for the weirdness of village life. He writes, for example, about the custom of "tweezering," popular in Cairo at one time. Instead of fighting, the young men of the town would "tweezer" their enemies, throwing them down and plucking the hairs from their nostrils. In Cairo and, to a lesser extent, in Kent, Powers exposes what is most interesting about Main Street--its oddball mixture of innocence and unctuousness, menace and mercy, boosterism and hopelessness, as if the Optimists' Club and the asylum shared the same building.

Powers does his share of rhapsodizing about rural life, about "the freedom of movement for children" and "the profundity of country nights as opposed to the vapor-lit menace of the urban darkness." But the heart of Powers' case for the country is more prosaic. It's the plain, warm familiarity of a meal at the family restaurant where, he writes, "I wanted to stay all evening, running forkfuls of rib-eye through swabs of A-1 sauce and looking at baby portraits on the wallpapered wall and eavesdropping on the talk of the (state) troopers, while the honky-tonk music came thumping . . . " It took him back, he writes, "into a recurring dream of mine, a dream in which everything is sort of subterranean and safe and interconnected, and everyone knows and is at ease with everyone else, and things are safe: a dream of a perfect town."

Powers did not go back to rural America merely to mourn its passing but also to write about a handful of people fighting to save their towns, from economic hemorrhaging in the case of Cairo and from terminal gentrification in Kent. His narrative moves back and forth between the two towns, musing, probing, as he watches people struggle to hang on to a way of life.

If there is a hero to this story it is a redoubtable geezer named Richard Poston, who arrives in Cairo with the fervor of a Fuller Brush salesman determined to drag the town from its torpor, reinvigorate its economy and marshal its citizenry against communal despair. Poston, who appears to have stepped right out of "The Music Man"--he constantly listens to John Philip Sousa tapes--is almost too good to be true.

As cracker-barrel American as Dale Carnegie or Johnnie Appleseed, Poston is one of those people who shake your hand to a fare-thee-well and use your first name one too many times in conversation. Early on, Poston gives the author the full treatment: "My relationship with this town now, Ron--I'd call it a mass love affair. It's intimate. Businesspeople open their books to me. Women tell me about their problems with their husbands. Husbands tell me about their problems with their wives. I walk into a meeting, it's not unusual at all for three or four women to come kiss me on the cheek."

It's not all hot air. As the author says, Poston, decked out in his red cardigan, gray Hush Puppies and sliver of a necktie, is more than natty crackpot. After a lifetime studying how towns work, Poston came to Cairo with a small community-development grant and an unassailable belief in the redemptive power of town-meeting democracy. His strategy: If you can get people talking to each other, believing in themselves, eventually they will take their fate in their hands.

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