Sunday, April 15, 2012

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (2005)

I became aware of this thanks to almost insistent Amazon recommendations, based I suspect on my appreciation for Joan Didion, expressed outright and in some of my shopping and buying habits. Didion has championed it via both blurbs and extensive reference to it in a piece she did on Lakewood, California, one of the early American suburbs. As author D.J.Waldie argues, Lakewood is not a typical suburb, nor particularly middle-class, as those concepts have come to be understood. It is laid out on a giant grid, rather than the tangled circles and cul-de-sacs we associate with suburbs now—"garden" suburbs, Waldie calls them. And upper-middle-class has become the ideal of middle-class now, whereas Lakewood almost by definition is working-class, intended for the most part to house workers at corporations with large defense contracts. Lakewood is made of 17,500 houses, based on a handful of variations of design, each with 1,100 square feet of floor space sitting on 100' x 50' lots. A giant shopping mall sits at the center of it, with groceries and dry-cleaning and similar businesses calculatedly distributed to be within walking distance of all. Waldie was born and raised there and still lived there at the time he wrote this book—probably still lives there now. A poet, an academic, and a city councilman, he is almost mannered in his devotion to the place: "my city" or "my suburb," he says, rarely if ever calling it by name. It's a memoir to the extent that we learn some of the facts of his life, his parents' lives and deaths most notably, and some of his own interests and preoccupations. But there's not much of that, and the general tone seems to be rather self-consciously impersonal, focusing mostly on factoids about the place, which can indeed be rather startling: the business deals that went into making it happen, information about how 17,500 houses are built and sold and occupied within a matter of a few years, issues such as access to water. It's compulsively readable, composed of 316 numbered passages—chapters, I suppose, though many are only a single sentence and none are much longer than a page. I think it probably means more to people familiar with living in Lakewood, or places like it. I grew up in a (garden) suburb myself, and didn't much connect with it, although the strange scope of it does ultimately tend toward a kind of irresistible interest.

In case it's not at the library.

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