Thought Catalog
February 16, 2012

Zenith On The Horizon: Junot Diaz, Garrison Keillor And American Boosterism

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If Junot Díaz and Garrison Keillor seem like an unlikely pair, it is mainly for extra-literary reasons which get more attention than they deserve. These reasons are linked to generation, personal biography and, not insignificantly, geography. Santo Domingo and New Jersey can feel like a long distance from Minnesota. Díaz is typically viewed as a street-smart Dominican dude, Keillor as a country boy über-Wasp. Both were embraced and promoted early in their careers by The New Yorker and appeared as alternatives to the “types” that you usually saw in The New Yorker. This description is surely too simple but in much of what is written about either writer, this is as much as you get. A closer look at literary concerns, however, reveals some striking similarities. This is not a fashionable thing to say but it is true.

Díaz and Keillor both employ a rhetoric of boosterism which in turn connects them with a literary tradition rooted in one of America’s founding myths. This tradition is enamored of the image of the horizon, which individual authors recast according to their purposes. Before explaining why this is true, let me first offer a few words about boosterism, and how it has shaped American culture.

Boosterism

In John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon “A Modell of Christian Charity,” given aboard the Arbella to describe his vision of the Puritan colony in New England, he referred, famously, to the “city upon the hill.” Visible on the horizon, it was both a place to be and to be viewed from afar, as a source of inspiration. “For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us […] Wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” Winthrop’s argument was both theological and utopian, and conceivably contained the seeds of American exceptionalism. As is well-known, presidents like Kennedy and Reagan were still quoting Winthrop centuries later, in light of their own agendas.

Boosterism is a by-product of this historical experience, both socially and linguistically. The city upon a hill sounds appealing, but how do you get there? “Boost” as a verb, in the sense of “to raise” or “to lift up,” is of uncertain dialectal etymology, perhaps an Americanism from 1805-1815 rooted in Scots dialect. “Booster” is an Americanism from around 1885-1890. “Boosterism” refers to promoting or “talking up” one’s community in the interest of making it sound wonderful, and, even before it was labelled as such, was a recognizable rhetorical strategy during the westward expansion, as small towns sought to attract new settlers and drive up the price of land. The tendency to use hyperbole in an attempt to persuade was mocked as early as 1871 on the floor of Congress when a Representative named J. Proctor Knott delivered a satirical speech entitled “The Untold Delights of Duluth,” which was frequently interrupted by laughter and applause. Unsurprisingly, American writers found the subject irresistible, too, the foremost example being Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), whose detailed treatment of a boosting businessman was surely a major factor in making him, in 1930, the first American to win the Nobel Prize. The novel begins with a description, reminiscient of John Winthrop’s “city upon the hill,” of the town of Zenith, viewed on the horizon: “the towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.” Local businessman George Babbitt always wears his Booster’s Club button with the two words: “Boosters — Pep!” and for him, “it was his V.C. [Victoria Cross], his Legion of Honor Ribbon.” Babbit’s boosterism has a rhetoric of its own, a barrage of persuasion marked by the superlative mode and attention-grabbing alliteration, resulting in slogans like “We zoom for Zenith” and “Zenith the Zip City — Zeal, Zest and Zowie.” In addition to the basic meaning of Zenith as the high point on the horizon, there is also the orthographic play with the last letter of the alphabet, as far out there, alphabetically, as you can get. Babbitt has provided a literary template of lasting influence, with more examples than space allows here, but they range from the Paris-based expatriate magazine The Booster, which was a dadaist forum for literary self-promotion for Henry Miller and his coterie (e.g., “for food and against peace, for Shangri-la and against schizophrenia”), to the more suburban musings of John Updike’s Rabbit (Babbitt?) Angstrom. The pulse of boosterism is palpable to this day, as we shall see now in regard to Garrison Keillor and Junot Díaz, both living writers, both critically respected and both, in my opinion, practitioners after their own fashion.

Inverted Boosterism

I’ll begin with Keillor because his Lake Wobegon Days (1985) appeared first. (Keillor has written more than a dozen books in which Lake Wobegon figures largely; even Love Me (2003), which is set in New York, is deeply rooted in Lake Wobegon culture; but I’ll focus on Lake Wobegon Days because of its parallels with Diaz’s first novel and because it remains the template for the Lake Wobegon books that followed. Lake Wobegon Days is foremost a novel about a place in the tradition of Winesburg, Ohio but it is considerably more varied in its storytelling technique. In addition to straightforward narrative, both first-person and omniscient, it includes letters, journal entries, poems, songs, student notes, scholarly footnotes, whimsical footnotes, government documents, potted histories, newspaper clippings — and even discussion questions about the work itself, such as one often finds nowadays in reader’s guides and promotional materials destined for students and book clubs, including the question: “Do you think the author should have worked harder in school?” This collage has its origins in radio monologues for Keillor’s show A Prairie Home Companion, but it would be a mistake to see the book simply as a compiliation of previously performed scripts, because it has been reshaped into thematically based chapters, while its footnote apparatus and the interpolated texts make it very much a reading experience. On many pages, the movement of the eye, up and down, to snatch at one element or another, is distinctive to the medium. The first-person narrator Gary Keillor is sometimes obtrusive, and plays a role in a variety of small plots, but generally the novel eschews a conventional story arc in favor of trying to put forward a particular community, and, in an idiosyncratic manner, boost it.

What is Lake Wobegon? The reader learns that this small Minnesota town “has its orgins in the utopian vision of nineteenth century New England Transcendentalists but is now populated mainly by Norwegians and Germans.” Founders included Prudence Alcott, a relative of the Concord Alcotts who sent jam to Thoreau in his cabin by the pond, who came west to “convert the Indians to Christianity by the means of interpretive dance.” There is also Henry Francis Watt, an idealist who knew Emerson back in Boston, who is possessed by a goal to “found a college, a city of learning on a hill.” Before it existed as a community, Lake Wobegon began as a vision on the horizon. Part tyrant, part poet, Henry is also the author of an indigestible epic entitled, “Phileopolis: A Western Rhapsody,” a posthumously discovered manuscript published by the local Thanatopsis Society, which is inflicted on local high school students. Judiciously and sparingly quoted in the novel, it contains references to “yon bright city” and “to yonder vision fair and true.” Joining these early earnest Protestants and calculating Yankee promoters is a group of determined German Catholics who had “misread their map, but refused to admit it.”  Originally the town was called New Albion, but within a generation adopted the name Lake Wobegon, based on a debatable translation of an Indian phrase that meant either “‘Here we are!’ or ‘We sat all day in the rain waiting for [you].’” The motto on the town crest is “‘Sumus quod sumus’ (We are what we are).”

As the last few examples make clear, along with the miserablist name, “Wobegon,” Keillor is tweaking the rhetoric of boosterism. He moves away from the hyperbolic and superlative, which were so characteristic of Babbitt, and plays a different game. In George Babbitt’s speeches to the Zenith Booster Club, “more” always means more, and “more” signifies better. It’s as incontrovertible as sunshine. Keillor takes another approach. Although a surface optimism appears in observations that the town’s one traffic light “is almost always green” or that “in 1889, they hung a man from a tower for stealing. He took it rather well,” there is a general tone of self-deprecation, often attributed to Midwesterners, which Keillor explores in its various guises. “‘Sumus quod sumus’ (We are what we are)” can be an expression of unassuming modesty, quite at odds with the unapologetic bragging of boosterism. Or, conversely, it can be an expression of the smuggest kind of complacency, the very essence of boosterism. The resulting tension animates much of the novel.

For many inhabitants of  Lake Wobegon, “Christians don’t go in for show.” To try to impress someone is a suspect form of vanity. Anything that smacks of wealth or materialism or conspicuous consumption is tainted. The parable of the difficulty of the rich man to enter heaven is taken rather seriously. The gist of Pastor Tommerdahl’s Christmas message was that “you’d better go home and give all your presents to the poor and spend Christmas with a bowl of soup, and not too many noodles in it either.” Physical comfort is suspect, and deferred gratification is an ideal.

As a consequence, at a rhetorical level, understatement becomes, in an inverted, paradoxical fashion, the loudest public affirmation of worth. As the narrator observes, “If doing without makes you appreciate things more, I guessed that the people of Lake Wobegon should be the happiest people in the world.” Catholics, too, though comparatively more sensual (Father Emil allows himself to drink one finger of brandy, and the luxury of air conditioning during the extremely hot, miserable summers), manage a very narrow margin of pleasure which celebrates a self-consciousness of its limits, as suggested by the name of their church, “Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.” As a city on a hill, Lake Wobegon is a highly uncomfortable place and, supposedly, all the better for it.

On the other hand, this version is constantly questioned in the text, too, particularly in the footnotes, which offer descriptions from outside sources and local dissenters. The most elaborate example appears in the late chapter called “News,” where beneath a description of Lake Wobegon’s studiously uncontroversial newspaper, are footnotes giving the partial text of 95 Theses 95, a manifesto that an unnamed writer (perhaps the narrator?) intended to nail on the door of the local Lutheran church, à la Martin Luther, in bitter repudiation of the horrors wrought upon his soul by small town life. Some theses echo earlier complaints, for instance about the locally wretched food of boiled vegetables and Norwegian lutefish; the men of the Boosters club are explicitly referred to as embodying  “petulance, inertia, and ineptitude,” while the strongest remarks address how the inverted rhetoric of boosterism in Lake Wobegon is a recipe for self-loathing. Here are a few examples:

13. In place of true contrition, you taught me to be apologetic. I apologize continually. I apologize for my own existence, a fact that I cannot change. For years, you told me that I’d be sorry someday. I am.

21. Suffering was its own reward, to be preferred to pleasure. As Lutherans, we viewed pleasure with suspicion. Birth control was never an issue with us. Nor was renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh. We never enjoyed them in the first place.

74. You misdirected me as surely as if you had said the world is flat and north is west and two plus two is four; i.e., not utterly wrong but just wrong enough that when I took the opposite position — the world is mountainous, north is east — I was wrong, too, and your being wrong about the world and north made me spend years trying to come up with the correct sum of two and two, other than four. You gave me the wrong things to rebel against.

Much of the satire in Lake Wobegon Days is fairly gentle, but 95 Theses 95 is of a different order, more bitter and containing echoes of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. The town paper offers evidence of “a life worth leaving.” This is more than a passing pun: much of Keillor’s later work, which returns again and again to Lake Wobegon, is about leaving the place it so persistently boosts. And that is the final irony: it offers a view of a city on the horizon that you must turn your back on.

Boosterism, Character and Superheroes

For Junot Díaz, place is more plural, and the boosterism concerns a diaspora community. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao moves back and forth between New Jersey and Santo Domingo. Its hero, Oscar de León, is a painfully lonely nerd who shares some qualities with the asocial, geeky narrator in Lake Wobegon Days, but Oscar’s situation is more desperate and considerably more dangerous. Fat and introverted, enamored by science fiction and fantasy genres, the butt of jokes for everyone around him, Oscar is trapped in a tragic quest to lose his virginity. He doesn’t get to tell his story, either; the novel is a busy concoction of shifting points of view and narratees, with frequent long footnotes, offering character backgrounds, potted histories, and science fiction literary references. Both Keillor and Díaz cultivate this multi-textual approach as best suited to their purpose. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the main narrator is Yunior, whom some readers will know from Díaz’s 1996 story collection entitled Drown. Yunior is a ladies man and weight lifter, in every way the opposite of Oscar. He sometimes refers to himself as the Watcher and offers metafictional comments on the writing process. He claims that the text in the reader’s hands is a Zafa, or a counterspell against the curse of fukú, “the Curse and the Doom of the New World” which supposedly arrived from Africa in the screams of slaves. Fukú, we are told, has plagued the hemisphere and its inhabitants, Dominicans and North Americans alike, ever since, and the notorious dictator Trujillo (“also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and F-ckface”) counted as its “hypeman” or “high priest.” Accompanying Oscar’s story are detailed accounts of his family’s history, which has much to say about twentieth century life in the Dominican Republic and in the Dominican disapora north.

Unsurprisingly, given the brutal background, boosterism in the sense of extolling the positive wonders of a place is out of the question. In terms of symbolic horizons, Oscar is, as the title of the first chapter announces, a “Ghettonerd at the End of the World” (my emphasis); he is someone who watches “his horizons collapse.” Santo Domingo is “the Ground Zero of the New World.” Rather, what is “wondrous” or being boosted in the story is the unrelenting plenitude attributed to the characters, whether physcial, emotional or spiritual. Like Sinclair Lewis, for whom “more” is always more (Zenith was “a city built — it seemed — for giants”), Díaz favors outsized characterizations, one-upmanship, and a stylistic penchant for the superlative.

The “typical Dominican male” has “Higher Powers” of game and seduction for women. Yunior is “the biggest player of them all”. A young girl’s sentiments in Santo Domingo “can sustain infatuations that would reduce your average northamericana to cinders.” Trujillo is not only an extremely nasty dictator, but “the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated.” His secret police “out-Stasi’d the Stasi.” As for Oscar himself,

Problem was, when it came to mujeres my roommate was like no one on the planet. […] Dude weighed 307 pounds, for f-ck’s sake! Talked like a Star Trek computer! The real irony was that you never met a kid who wanted a girl so f-cking bad. I mean, sh-t, I thought I was into females, but no one, and I mean no one, was into them the way Oscar was. To him they were the beginning and end, the Alpha and Omega, the DC and Marvel. Homes had it bad […]

If Oscar is “like no one on the planet” he becomes, after a fashion, a nerd superhero, an inverted reflection of the DC and Marvel comic books that he loves so dearly. Many characters are defined — and boosted — along these lines. For instance, here is description of Oscar’s mother as a young woman:

She was La Tetúa Suprema: her tetas were globes so implausibly titanic that they made generous souls pity their bearer and drove every straight male in their vicinity to reevaluate his sorry life. She had the Breasts of Luba (35DDD). And what about that supersonic culo that could tear words right out of n-ggers’ mouths, pull windows from out of their motherf-cking frames? A culo que jalaba más que une junta de buey. Dios mío!

Luba is a popular character in the Love and Rockets comic book series, a woman of caricatural dimensions from a Latin American village who eventually makes her way to California. In addition to such textual allusions, the use of the superlative enters into even the most everyday descriptions. When the young Beli is scolded by La Inca, it is “tongue-lashing number five hundred million and five” or, when Yunior becomes Oscar’s roommate,  it was because he’d “pulled what was probably the lowest number in the history of the housing lottery.” Oscar’s sister Lola wears “enough silver on her wrists to ransom the royal family.” Consider this description of Oscar’s grandmother, known as La Inca, acting in a time of crisis:

She did what many women of her background would have done. Posted herself beside her portrait of La Virgen de Altagracia and prayed. We postmodern plátanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic […] [but] let me tell you, True Believers: in the annals of Dominican piety there has never been a prayer like this.”

Once the conventions of realism are left behind, the characters and their actions can become, literally, otherworldly. The Middle-earth cosmology of the The Lord of the Rings figures largely in the story, and readers uninitiated to Tolkein will find the footnotes instructive. Oscar, an aspiring writer, dreams of being “the Dominican Tolkien.” Yunior knows enough of such lore (and Welsh mythology and DC Comics) to describe Trujillo as “our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up”; though, elsewhere, he rhetorically wonders: “What [could be] more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo?” One of the possible explanations for the demise of Oscar’s grandfather Abelard at the end of the novel is not that he insulted Trujillo or that Trujillo wanted his daughters, but that he’d been writing a book about the supernatural powers of the president, that “Trujillo was, if not in fact, then in principle, a creature from another world!” In the imaginative economy of this book, that is the only way to explain him: as someone from beyond the horizon.

Limits of Boosterism

Of course, it’s a matter of taste, whether or not a reader wants to go that far. In America, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been largely read in light of its immigrant themes, its treatment of stereotypes, and multiculturalism. I’m referring here to the reaction after it won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. For instance, the New York Times: “Mr. Diaz, 39, arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1974, not speaking or reading English. His riotous novel tells the story of a family of Dominican immigrants.” The idea of authenticity still exerts a fascination, though it remains a “vexed concept,” in the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who has affirmed: “To borrow from Samuel Goldwyn’s theory of sincerity, authenticity remains essential: once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” (Amusingly, Gates’ attributing this “theory” to Goldwyn is dubious, because it has also been attributed to Jean Giraudoux, Groucho Marx and George Burns, and its source remains a matter of dispute.) Other critics like Daniel Bautista have stressed that race and ethnicity are “performative, provisional, and even strategic roles that individuals assume or take off according to the demands of the moment.” These discussions can be interesting but I would like to privilege an observation by Terry Eagleton in 2001:

In cultural studies if in precious few other places, what was once rejected has become the cornerstone, and centuries of insult and odious patronage are accordingly being made up for.

The bad news is that otherness is not the most fertile of intellectual furrows. Indeed, once you have observed that the other is typically portrayed as lazy, dirty, stupid, crafty, womanly, passive, rebellious, sexually rapacious, childlike and a number of other mutually contradictory epithets, it is hard to know what to do next apart from reaching for yet another textual illustration of the fact. The theme is as theoretically thin as it is politically pressing. Nothing is now more stereotyped in literary studies than the critique of stereotypes.

Will the day come when nothing is more stereotyped in literature the critique of stereotypes? Worthy projects are fraught with the perils of didacticism, and didacticism undermines the ambiguity which is at the core of good art. Díaz is a very adroit writer but he doesn’t escape this problem; sometimes the distance between implied author and narrator seems to dissolve, and Yunior’s hip, debunking asides slip into the voice of a hectoring school teacher. Yunior announces, “A thousand tales I could tell you about Abelard’s imprisonment — a thousand tales to wring the salt from your motherf-cking eyes.” Maybe, the reader might wonder, a mere 500 tales would achieve as much. Or even one or two, if really apposite and artful. The problem being, when the boosting superlatives become omnipresent, they lose their force and power of defamiliarization. They become typical, normative, and in fact get recoded as mediocre. Some critics might argue that I’m missing the point, or at least the nuance, that the novel’s depiction of superheroic sexual plenitude, for instance, when considered alongside Oscar’s sorry experience, reveals the limits of stereotype, and thus the depiction of Oscar is subversive. This is probably true, as far as it goes. But to the extent that this novel boosterishly celebrates Dominican sexual plenitude — and it does — it also echoes George Babbitt’s praise of Zenith as “the home for manly men and womanly women.” But with Lewis’s novel there is a crucial difference: how earnestly are we supposed to take this boosterish rhetoric? There is a distinction between writing about a Babbitt, and writing as a Babbitt.

Of course, there’s no reason to single out Díaz. This is not an ethnic or race-man’s (or race-woman’s) burden. Although Garrison Keillor does not belong to a visible minority, and the historical circumstances of the community he writes about are markedly different, Eagleton’s words apply to him as well. Keillor’s more inverted method of boosterism might emanate from its more secure niche in mainstream American society, but the “mainstream” is in flux and the word flirts with stereotype in its own right. In any case, in regard to literary uses of language, the reader finds an analogous problem of calibration in Lake Wobegon Days. Just as there is a crack in Diaz’s rhetorical edifice where “more” is not always more, for Keillor and his understated style, a similar crack appears when less is sometimes, well, less. Lake Wobegon Days’ self-consciousness about its own modesty, for instance in the accounts of Myrtle Krebsbach’s dancing or of the church Christmas programs, can become cloying. The novel announces, in effect, that this is all there is, and this is enough, so you oughtn’t wonder about it. Again, artistic ambiguity is compromised, and the reader might detect the self-satisfied echo of George Babbitt, who argues that Zenith has “the largest proportion of these Regular Guys, and that’s what sets it in a class by itself.” It’s a cunningly absurd proposition. Of course, it’s the character speaking. With Keillor, though, it is sometimes possible to wonder if the author is control of the inverted boosterish rhetoric, or if this boosterish rhetoric is in control of the author.

In the end, Garrison Keillor and Junot Díaz have more in common that one might initially suspect. They write about different worlds, but their writing about different worlds participates in a longstanding American tradition, and reveals a shared horizon of expectations about what it means to imagine a community. Each author explores the rhetoric of boosterism after his fashion and, sometimes, to his peril. TC mark

image – Joe Shlabotnik