Crown Journeys series

sunglasses for scale

I was listening to Chuck Palahniuk on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (is this the second post in a row where I mention this podcast?  It’s not for everybody but I’m into it!)

You know, if somebody had given David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath fourteen issues of Spider-Man to do, they’d both still be alive

says Palahniuk early in the episode.  An outrageous claim.  But hey, I guess outrageous claims were what I was signing up for. Would ❤️ to read a Sylvia Plath Spider-man series.

Palahniuk isn’t a writer I’ve read much of, gross out, extremist fiction not being my kinda milkshake.  But when Palahniuk mentioned that he’d written a travel book about Portland, that got my attention.  Travel books I’m into.  So I got Palahniuk’s travel book, fugitives and refugees: A Walk In Portland, Oregon, which it turns out is part of a series Crown put out, Crown Journeys, where writers do a walking tour – sometimes pretty literally, sometimes in quotes – of a place they know well.

Turns out I’d read one of these already, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket.  I’d read that a few years back during a weeklong stay on Nantucket, but I remember nothing from it.  The book about Nantucket I like is Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, where I learned there was a neighborhood on Nantucket called New Guinea, full of people of color of various kinds.  Nantucket’s worth a post of her own someday.

Stuck homebound, I got a bunch of these Crown Journeys books.  An appealing quality of them is their size, just right to stuff in a bag:

Let’s start with Palahniuk’s.  It’s a travel guide plus a memoir, the voice is strong and he shows, even rubs your face in, the weirdness of that town, the grubbiness and beauty all swished up together.

Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean.  Once there, the cheapest city where they can life is Portland.  This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots.  The misfits among misfits.

The memory and madness:

Days, I’m working as a messenger, delivering advertising proofs form the Oregonian newspaper.  Nights, I wash dishes at Jonah’s seafood restaurant.  My roommates come home, and we throw food at each other.  One night, cherry pie, big sticky red handfuls of it.  We’re eighteen years old.  Legal adults.  So we’re stoned and drinking champagne every night, microwaving our escargot.  Living it up.

Palahniuk is clearly more into the sex trade, underground (literal and figurative) side of the town, but he covers the gardens too, along with the Self Cleaning House and Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the standout landmarks, along with a semi-autobiography full of vivid, intense incidents, like a beating and a moment with the mother of a dying hospital patient.

Although this book was published in 2003, reading it gives insight into why Portland is the arena of choice for “antifa” and far-night political violence LARPers and a fracture zone of America 2020.

The Seattle Public Library’s loss is my gain.

Next up, Roy Blount Jr.’s Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans.  

This one’s the best organized, divided into seven rambles: Orientation, Wetness, Oysters, Color, Food, Desire, Friends.  It’s full of jokes and stories and anecdote.  Of all the Crown Journeys I read, this one’s unsurprisingly the most focused on food.  How can you not want a “roast beef sandwich with debris” from Mothers, or a pan-fried trout topped with “muddy water” sauce: chicken broth, garlic, anchovies, and gutted jalapeños and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.”

Blout’s book is full of autobiography too, quoting from letters he wrote as a young man, describing nights and dinners, what New Orleans meant to him as a young man and what he found on frequent returns.

I’ll bet I have been up in N. O. at every hour in every season,

he says, a cool claim.

Towards the end of the book, Blount Jr. turns kind of reflective, ruminating with some regret on an incident of insensitivity, somewhere between misunderstanding and even cruelty, towards a homosexual friend that ended badly.  There’s an air of regret to it, and maybe that’s part of New Orleans, too.  Feet On The Street might work best of all of these, as a book.  I’ve read a lot of guides to New Orleans and this one’s a fine addition to the canon.

Blount’s a figure who doesn’t seem to quite exist as much any more, the sort of literary semi-comedian raconteur, where books are just one expression of a humorous personality.  Christopher Buckley’s another guy like that.

Washington Schlepped Here is, in my opinion, the worst titled of these books.  It’s a pun, first of all, but second, George Washington simply never “schlepped.”  Didn’t happen.  He was not a schlepper.  Buckley spends a paragraph or two dealing with the title, although he seems quite pleased with it.  “Pleased with himself” might be the most accurate criticism you could make of Christopher Buckley, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by his privileged charm.

Buckley’s Washington is strictly the Washington of our nation’s capital.  You won’t find anything in here about the majority black population of that city.  How can you write a book about Washington that doesn’t mention Ben’s Chili Bowl?  E. J. Applewhite’s Washington Itself, which Buckley quotes from copiously, is a richer one volume guide to the city.  But there’s a Yale-grade wit to Buckley, I won’t deny it.

I’ll let you prowl about.  There’s a lot to see: the Old Senate Chamber, Statuary Hall, the Crypt, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, along with enough murals, portraits, busts and bas reliefs to keep you going “Huh” for hours.”

Buckley takes the walking tour conceit the most seriously of any of the writers.  There’s a bummer element hanging over this book, as Buckley keeps pointing out how post-9/11 security procedures and jersey barriers have made wandering the capital city less free that in it used to be.  There’s a bit of filler to this one, too, as if Buckley’s sort of just taking the Wikipedia page to certain buildings and adding a few quips.  A few pages are devoted to musing on specific works in specific Mall art museums.  Several of the jokes rely casual shared stereotypes about politics, like that Republicans like martinis, that now feel like they’re from another universe (the book was published in 2003).

The best parts of this one come from Jeanne Fogle’s book Proximity to Power and Tony Pitch’s walking tour, both centered on Lafayette Square, which bring to life people who lived here.  Places are only so interesting. It’s people that get your attention.

James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg is just terrific.  A concise, powerful tour of the battlefield, rich in detail and incident, you’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller who knows his stuff deeply.  One of McPherson’s gifts is to take us not just to the battle as it happened, but to the battlefield as it’s remembered and preserved.  McPherson talks about the way the woodlands on the battlefield would’ve been more thinned out in 1863, who could see what from where, how small features of geography shaped those three days.  On the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge:

Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view.  Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered.  One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force.  Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slight.  The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks.  The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of Pennsylvania.  Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fused they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.

On such things does history turn? McPherson tells us details like that Company F of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle.

I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and was pretty familiar with the shape of the events and landscape.  But I’d wager this book would provide a pretty clear and readable introduction to the battle, even if you didn’t know very much about it.  Certainly it’s much easier to comprehend than Shelby Foote’s Stars In The Courses, another short volume about Gettysburg, which has a poetry to it, but good luck using it to decipher what happened where.

Kinky is not a word that I love, and comedy music makes me uncomfortable.  So I’ve never gotten too into Kinky Friedman.  But The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: a “walk” in Austin is pretty companionable.  Kinky is friends with George W. Bush, and has nothing bad to say about him (this one was published in 2004, so pre Iraq catastrophe).

There are a couple of notable omissions in this book.  The coolest part of Austin to me is Rainey Street, but that section’s conversion of porched houses into bars may post-date this work.  There’s also nothing about the Texas State Cemetery, which I believe is unique in the United States and tells you quite a bit about the values of Texas.  Maybe worth a book of its own.  Also, without explanation, Friedman tosses off that he’s never been inside the Texas Capitol Building, which is the centerpiece of Austin.

Is Austin the place of all these that has changed the most in the last twenty years?

Still, you’re on a fun ramble with a personality who’s committed to entertaining.  A thin volume, thick with schtick. I really liked Kinky’s introduction to Texas history, and the stuff about the ’70s music scene.  If you think calling a ghost an “Apparition-American” is funny, you’ll enjoy this book.  Really, any small book about Austin in this time of home-bounditude would’ve been appreciated by me.

Compact, entertaining guides to places, by writers who really have a voice – there should be more books like this.  I ate these up like cookies.  Surely Boston, Los Angeles/Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Savannah, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Honolulu, Charleston could all use books like this.  Brooklyn?

Hell I’d even read one about San Diego.

I’d like to write a book like this myself someday.  It might be interesting to try a travel book on a smaller scale than the whole world or all of Central and South America.



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