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Book Review

Essays With Indie Spirit and Sense of History

September 12, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT

By Sarah Vowell

Simon & Schuster

198 Pages, $22

An essay called "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous" ought to concern one of those strange maladies Oliver Sacks recounts. But the person of science in this case is Sarah Vowell, the trenchant writer and radio essayist who is out with a new collection of essays and humor pieces called "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

Vowell has a refreshing way of sizing herself up. "I'm two parts loner, one part joiner," she writes.

Or, to describe her nerdy devotion to big moments in American history: "I have set my alarm so I wouldn't miss a C-Span morning live remote from the house of the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine."

In "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous," she says: "As a white, middle-class American moviegoer who graduated from high school during the Reagan administration and subscribes to more than one cable film channel, I've seen every film Tom Cruise ever made, some many more than once, without even trying." That sentence is chilling on several levels, but Vowell is like Joan Didion without the gloomy foreboding, and her book is full of little comic treasures that both derive from and illuminate otherwise unexplained cultural phenomena.

Thus, while I have been trying to articulate for years why Cruise makes me nervous, too, I will now refer skeptics to Vowell, who manages to illustrate his cyborg tendencies.

"When the cute little kid in 'Jerry Maguire' gave Cruise a hug," she writes, "my first reaction was parental. I wanted to grab the child away, scolding, 'We don't do that. We don't touch burning stoves, strangers' candy, and we do not touch Tom Cruise.' "

Vowell grew up in Oklahoma and Montana, and she has Cherokee roots. She has lived in Chicago and now resides in New York, where her friends include Dave Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney's, where her writing has appeared.

She is also a regular contributor to the public radio program "This American Life," hosted by Ira Glass.

Vowell has been duly recognized, then, for her indie-spirited prose. Those who've heard her on the radio (the voice like an eggshell showing cracks) will readily hear her tone in these pages.

As she glides around her overarching points, there are great throwaway lines, drolly delivered (" ... every domestic flight requires a middle-aged man with a Stephen Ambrose book in his carry-on luggage--it's an FAA regulation").

Much of the book, her second collection of essays, concerns politics--and not just the politics of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but of Lincoln, Jefferson and Eisenhower.

Because Vowell, a self-described nerd and history buff, has an abiding interest in civics--then, now and always.

So while cafe liberals bemoan the death of democracy in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, Vowell is proactive, seeking solace in the Emancipation Proclamation. And she attends Bush's inauguration, planning to protest but ending up weepy.

"Ike Was a Handsome Man," meanwhile, is part travelogue, part memo to Clinton, during whose scandalized presidency Vowell served as "your crabby little cheerleader." Now she gets to the dicey little business of the planning of Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. For a frame of reference she tours the Kennedy Library in Boston, the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., and the Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, picking out little pieces of wisdom.

Of how Clinton might address the Lewinsky scandal without whitewashing it, Vowell suggests an opportunity to be exploited in Clinton's having given his paramour a copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." "Perhaps your exhibition designers can do something with a line or two from 'Song of Myself,' " she says. "The best description of you I've ever read was published in 1855:

'Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)' "

Vowell contains her own multitudes. In the book's title essay, she examines the meaning of patriotism post-Sept. 11 and cuts through the clutter of the media's largely bathetic coverage.

Of the ubiquity of the American flag, and the seeming demand to stand behind one's country in the current time of crisis, Vowell writes: " ... like any normal citizen, I prefer to make up my mind about the issues of the day on a case by case basis at 3 a.m. when I wake up from my 'Nightline'-inspired nightmares."

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