With shades of George Saunders, Why Visit America manages to be both fun and socially perceptive.
“There wasn’t anything special about us,” says the collective narrator of the title story in Matthew Baker’s Why Visit America. “We were just an average town. Porch swings, wading pools, split-rail fences, pumpjacks bobbing for oil on the horizon.”
That’s Plainfield, a fictional small town in Real County, Texas. You could see it as a thinly veiled version of Leakey, the actual county seat of Real County, except for one thing: Plainfieldians don’t bleed red, white, and blue. “We were fed up with our country … We were anti-government, we were anti-corporate, but mostly we were normal people who couldn’t afford to buy an election and had come to understand that our votes didn’t mean shit.”
So residents decide to secede from the United States and declare their town a new country, named, confusingly, America. The town’s oddly progressive residents promptly mandate that people in the new country use “Mx.” instead of “Mr.” or “Ms.,” convert to the metric system, and do away with copyright law. All of these are unlikely to happen anytime in the real Real County, which gave President Trump 82 percent of its vote in 2016, but Baker refuses to play anything straight in this book—in the world of the title story, the inhabitants of a tiny Texas town are willing to be swayed to the left when confronted with calm explanations.
Nobody of any importance seems to care about America’s secession, but things come to a head when the town’s one holdout recruits some associates from across the country to reclaim America for … America. It’s a fantastic story, quirky without being twee, and Baker refuses to engage in stereotypes about the politically dissatisfied hoi polloi in rural areas.
Why Visit America, set in different parts of the United States, is a socially conscious book, though not a didactic one. The stories take place in a near-future dystopian version of the nation, one that looks a lot like ours, but with present social problems taken to their logical, chilling ends. In “Life Sentence,” a convict named Washington returns to his home after being subjected to a novel punishment: a procedure that has deleted his memories. As his “reintroduction supervisor,” Lindsay, says, “Imagine what your situation would have been, being sentenced to life. You would have spent the next half a century locked in a cage like an animal … Instead, you get to be here, with your family. Pretty cool, right? Like, super cool? You have to admit.”
It isn’t, of course, and he doesn’t. Washington finds himself at loose ends, unable to remember what he was like before the procedure, and unaware of why he was sentenced to prison in the first place. He can’t even recall whether he’s in love with his wife: “He can tell that the feeling is strong, but even though he knows how strong the feeling is, and though he can’t imagine how a feeling could possibly be any stronger, he’s not sure whether or not there’s still another feeling that’s even stronger out there.”
It’s a beautiful, painful story that again sees Baker underplaying his hand, addressing a social problem—the cruelty of the criminal justice system—with subtlety. The story ends with Washington on the cusp of making a choice that could upend his life, and Baker handles it gorgeously.
Among Baker’s skills is a sharp sense of humor, which he uses to good effect in “The Sponsor,” a witty critique of the roles corporations play in our day-to-day lives. The story follows Brock and Jenna, a couple planning their wedding when their corporate sponsor goes bankrupt. (In the world of the story, it’s unthinkable to have a wedding not sponsored by a big business.)
Brock and his best friend, Ty, attempt to find a new sponsor and uncover a promising lead with a company called BJ’s. (“Just don’t make any blowjob jokes,” Ty warns Brock.) But the company isn’t satisfied with the average income of the wedding guests and declines to sponsor the event, leaving Brock with no choice but to beg an old neighbor who now works for Mattel for help. The man, whom Brock once tormented as a child, agrees to help, but only if Brock takes part in a bizarre ritual.
Stories that satirize American big business are a dime a dozen, of course, but this one stands out for its dark humor and witty dialogue. Baker captures perfectly the way young men of the dude-bro variety speak to one another. There are shades of George Saunders, but it’s not derivative; the book manages to be both fun and socially perceptive, a difficult twofer to pull off.
Not every story in the book is successful. “A Bad Day in Utopia” follows a woman working at a video game company in a world in which the reign of men has come to an end: “The global population of men was strictly regulated, just over a hundred thousand in the world, and all of the men had been raised in captivity from birth, were familiar with the bite and the sting of batons and stunners.”
Her city maintains a “menagerie”—a brothel in which women can use men for their sexual pleasure. She visits her favorite lover, Rex, whom she pities: “He had never felt sunshine. He had never felt rain. He had never felt wind.” Rex begs her to help him sneak out of the menagerie, and she considers it, fantasizing about moving to the country with him. But then she thinks about stories she’s heard from the past: “She thought about the genital mutilations, and the forced pregnancies, and the forced abortions, and the bride burnings, and the boy clubs.” The story ends with a line of dialogue that’s meant to be ironic but is too pat and predictable to be effective.
It’s an obvious and ham-handed story, reminiscent of the kind of man who tries to ingratiate himself to women by criticizing his own gender. Baker’s heart is in the right place, to be sure, but the story reads like the work of an earnest but clumsy college student.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. Most of the stories in Why Visit America are both clever and graceful, written with perceptiveness and a subtlety that’s often lacking in fiction that addresses social justice issues. Baker will fascinate with his boundless imagination and talent for crafting memorable prose.
Read more from the Observer:
Texas Solar Hits a Turning Point: As the coronavirus pandemic devastates the state’s already flailing oil and gas industry, solar energy production is on a trajectory for record growth.
The Coronavirus Pipeline: U.S. deportations of migrants have exported COVID-19 to Guatemala and prompted fear, chaos, and a collapse of already fragile health services.
Improbable, Prophetic Houston: Two new books about the Bayou City—one about its people, one about its places—explore how the fourth largest city in the U.S. became itself.