The Road Non Taken

State by State With the State
By the State
Hyperion, 271 pp., $10.95, paper

An American Festival of “World Capitals”
By Laura Bergheim
John Wiley, 299 pp., $14.95, paper

AMERICANS LOVE TO TRAVEL, but we frankly don’t give a damn about the rest of the world. And why should we? From sea to shining sea, a person could spend a lifetime exploring the curiosities along our blue highways and never see it all. Or learn a thing.

Which is why State By State With the State is the perfect travel guide for the Ugly American. As the subtitle explains, it is “An Uninformed, Poorly Researched Guide to the United States.” A witty celebration of ignorance, it won’t even make you feel like traveling.

A guess: The inspiration for this book was its title. Another guess: The group never left the confines of New York City&#151never left their apartments&#151to write this “guidebook” to the U.S.A.

The State is a many-person comedy troupe, none of whom is particularly distinguishable, even the lone female. Its MTV show aired during a glut of sketch-troupe shows, and seemed like just more of the same. But what was a weakness on television is a strength in print. Many similar voices blend well, while also providing a subtle variety that a single writer would likely not have achieved.

From the dedication to the utterly useless made-up index, this is nonsense, pure and simple. But the best kind of nonsense: loose, wild, and quick. Most of the items don’t even have a premise, they just start silly and riff on their own inanity. This can be an exceptionally unfunny technique, made more excruciating with length. Here, it works. The authors create a giddy mood&#151happy ignorance on holiday&#151and build on it.

state by state by state

The cover proudly proclaims, “Finally Without Maps!,” though there are outlines of states. The country is divided into the usual regions, and each state is given its due, either playing up stereotypes or creating fresh ones.

For instance, under “Georgia Events and Activities,” we learn that “the Georgia Film Festival runs from June 3 through July 3 and features some of Palestine, Syria, and Jordan’s finest new directors. Security is high and attendance low, so good seats are easy to come by.”

Fort Lauderdale is wonderfully described as “the French Riviera of Terrible Awfulness.”

There is a list of “Things You Don’t Overhear in a Bar in Jackson, Alabama,” that includes, “Group hug!” and “I don’t really like Charlie Daniels’ music, but, Christ, what an ass!” and “Why can’t I find me a woman like Yoko Ono?”

They don’t just pick on the easy-target South. The group offers an “Iowa-Kansas-Nebraska Weekend Romp” (for some reason trademarked): “You want to see Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska, but all you have is three days? Not to worry. Just follow this plan to get the most out of the time you have. And remember: This is only a guide. Feel free to adjust the following itinerary to tailor it to your own needs. Day 1: Kansas. Day 2: Iowa. Day 3: Nebraska.”

And how does our fair city rate? Though we’ve yet to achieve statehood, Washington joins the other 50 in being pointlessly dismissed. While Republican- and Democrat-spotting and a visit to the “life-size” Lincoln Memorial are suggested, the best our town has to offer is Dunkin’ Donuts. “There’s nothing special about the ones in Washington,” the writers note, “but we think that going to Dunkin’ Donuts is special enough. (We recommend the donuts.)”

I do have a pathetic quibble with the entirely useless index. Listed is “Mxlplx, Mr.” Surely they mean Superman’s annoying visitor from another dimension, Mr. Mxyzptlk!

The section on Road Games is laugh-out-loud funny. Such time-passers as “Lick the Seat Belts,” “Try, Try to Punch My Eye,” and “What Did I Have for Lunch” may seem obvious. However, many of these games must be played using 13 20-sided dice.

You don’t read this book, you nibble at it, starting anywhere. And like the unhealthy bag of potato chips it resembles, you’ll find yourself gobbling more than you intended.

TO WRITE HER BOOK, Laura Bergheim most likely did get out of the house, if only to go the library. Though she disclaims that it is “not a scientific or comprehensive directory,” An American Festival of “World Capitals”: From Garlic Queens to Cherry Parades (A Guide to “World Capitals” of Arts, Crafts, Food, Culture, and Sport) is fairly extensive and full of useful information, for both the serious seeker of Americana and the ironic traveler out to snicker at the locals.

world capitals

It’s typically American to proclaim so many “World” capitals, and then only list ones in the United States. Maybe Solvang, Calif., is the “Danish Capital of the World.” Maybe the pastries in Denmark are really lousy.

But Bergheim is an enthusiastic booster, and she presents a uncritical tour of our globe-trumping greatness. Many of the illustrations are courtesy of local Chamber of Commerces, so while Las Vegas is described as the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” don’t expect a mention of its active prostitution industry.

World Capitals is organized by category rather than by state, so those planning a trip must read the book rather than skim the contents for an itinerary. Bergheim not only lists dates for annual festivals and celebrations, but provides addresses, phone numbers, contacts, and offers recommended reading (which not surprisingly includes Charles Kuralt’s books).

Many “capitals” earned their titles over time as a result of industry developing around natural resources or local traditions spawned by immigrant or like-minded populations. More and more, capitals are self-proclaimed, awarded by local business or government eager for tourist dollars. If one expected that New York City would be the Bagel Capital, one would be wrong. That honor belongs, of course, to Matoon, Ill. Matoon is the home of the Lender’s factory. Lender’s sells a lot of frozen bagels and wants you to know it.

The text is broken up by many “Did You Know” sidebars, aimed at readers not entirely in the know, like this mention of “Lutefisk Capital U.S.A.,” Madison, Minn.: “As if the briney [sic] codfish dish weren’t famous enough, MTV viewers swallowed an unanticipated dose of fisk, courtesy of Lutefisk, the band.”

Tacit acknowledgment is made of the fact that eventually most travel will be done without leaving one’s chair. “Cyberspace Contacts” provide pointers to capital-related web sites, such as toyfarmer.com, which the Farm Toy Capital. There are four farm-toy manufacturers located in the Dyersville area. Go figure.

DESPITE THE HAPPY TONE of the book, all is not entirely peaceful in World Capital Land. There are the many rival Capitals. Watermelons and spinach have several claimants. Bergheim wisely admits that the many regional varieties of barbecue are each justly deserving. Thus Kansas City, Memphis, Texas, North Carolina, and Kentucky may all share the crown. (She also explains the Spanish roots of the word “barbecue.”)

But some of the rivalries make as little sense as what they commemorate. For some reason, Sun Prairie, Wis., believes it has more of a claim on being America’s Groundhog Capital than Punxsutawney, Pa.&#151even though their woodchuck, “Jimmy,” arrived 61 years after the justly famous Phil.

This is the dark side of Chamber of Commerce greed and provincial chauvinism. Punxsutawney’s tradition grew honestly from its German-immigrant population and natural abundance of groundhogs, and has been dutifully maintained since 1887. To think that mayoral proclamations and press releases can rewrite history is simply insulting.

Even online, Punxsutawney rules. Compare Punxsutawney’s elegant URL (www.groundhog.org) to Sun Prairie’s geeky gibberish (http://tmcweb.com/sorairie/ghog.htm). Please.

I will say this to Sun Prairie: Give it up. You’re nuts. The people of Sun Prairie are stupid idiots if they think anybody cares about their pathetic furball.

It is such pigheadedness that makes Americans so damn ugly.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper