Reading Rarities: A Field Guide To the North American Family

thefieldguidetothenorthamericanfamily
This book is available on Amazon.

Ah, that elusive, nubelous entity, the American Family. The whole world finds the American Family intriguing. They can’t really help it, seeing as American Families are ubiquitous. Everyone from the Jeffersons to the Cleavers to the Bundys are known in every country.

The fictional American family, at least the ones found in sitcoms of a certain era, seems happy and perfect, with every mishap or trial getting neatly and succinctly tied up. Authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Alan Ginsberg have tried to fly in the face of such spotlessness by portraying American families having dark secrets and skeletons in their armoires.

This is not the family Hallsberg is looking for. (History Things)

However, few stories about the American Family are as unique as Garth Risk Hallberg’s volume, A Field Guide To the North American Family. I don’t mean “unique” in a good way, though. I found this book at the dollar store next to an atrocious pirate novel by L. Ron Hubbard and thought I would take a shot. It’s only a dollar, right? No biggie.

Heh. Nope.

This book might look all scholarly and hip and stuff, but its title has about as much to do with its supposed subject matter as Trout Fishing In America has to do with actual trout fishing. It purports to be a novella about the Hungate and Harrison families, both of whom live on Long Island, and who are each thrown into turmoil by a death in one of the families.

Pexels

What’s really pathetic is that I didn’t find that out from reading the book. It’s all contained in the endflap. Whereas the book itself is a series of seemingly random vignettes about various characters and aspects of American life.

Most of these interludes are about a paragraph long, some lengthy, others brief. The biggest number of them have to do with a character named Gabe, who’s the proverbial rebel without a cause. Gabe drinks. He smokes. He does drugs. And he sleeps around. One of his conquests is the head cheerleader, Lacey, whose body he strategically draws on with a Sharpie, as Gabe’s previous girlfriend notices when she spies Lacey taking a shower in the locker room.

Variety

Other vignettes might mention that the unnamed main character had instant oatmeal for breakfast. Or a page might have a single sentence, such as one that says, “What the {eff} are we doing?” Except Hallsberg doesn’t censor it. A lot of the pages seemed like gibberish to me, but maybe it’s because I felt so alienated I didn’t care.

There’s no order to the book, no overarching narrative. Nothing. Just paragraphs with dimly appropriate illustrations. None of them are actually of families, either–a paragraph called “Heirlooms” faces a stuffed deer encased in Saran Wrap. Or a piece called “Innocence” lies opposite a picture of a flock of crows congregating, Hitchcock-like. Since the book is a guide, sorta, the words, “See Also” are included under the illustrations, listing supposedly-related vignettes on other pages.

Maybe Hallsberg was going for a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of thing, who knows, but it doesn’t play well. Theoretically, if one decides to follow all these rabbit trails it’s possible to assemble a cohesive story. In practice, the book is confusing, because it’s too easy to forget previous vignettes while searching for the next ones. Plus, Choose Your Own Adventure books are very straightforward about where they start and finish, and there is a discernable narrative. Hopping all over a book with no real plan takes all the pleasure out of pleasure reading.

Hallberg’s prose style isn’t especially engaging, either. It’s hard to tell if he’s telling a story or playing Pong–his vignettes volley back and forth between first person and third person with, again, no context whatsoever. He peppers his writing with phrases like, “They came to Long Island in search of sunlight,” or “It’s not death you ultimately have to worry about. It’s pain.”

familybeach

It reminds me of the kinds of stories I had to read in college as examples of “artsy” literature. My Art of Autobiography prof was big on this sort of thing. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t impress me. While it’s good to get a bit metaphysical, it takes a fine hand to successfully pull it off. I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend to go for a more pragmatic style, like Dorothy Parker or William Goldman. And Steinbeck, of course.

Now, the book isn’t all bad. What little story these vignettes have can be intriguing, and some of them read pretty decently. The only one I really liked was “Entertainment,” which is about how TV was the first step in separating families, who went from watching together to playing video games separately. And I like that Hallsberg doesn’t try to whitewash any of these characters we see very little of–they seem very natural and human. Too bad we don’t have time to get to know them.

whodoyouthinkyouare
SBS

I think the thing that bothers me most about the Guide is that it focuses too much on the shortcomings of the two families instead of allowing them to show their strengths. It’s understandable that Hallsberg would want to show another side to American families, but in making the Hungates and Harrisons so messed up, he creates a new stereotype that’s just as short-sighted. No family is perfect, but most families don’t deserve to be painted with such a broad brush, either.

Overall, the Guide is way too haphazard to really like. It tries, but not very hard. Or maybe it tries too hard. I’m not sure which. Either way, A Field Guide To the North American Family is a convoluted, pretentious mess. The L. Ron Hubbard pirate yarn was probably the better bet, but oh well. Hindsight.

The first of our Five Days At the Fair series starts on Thursday. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you then…

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