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Slice of American
By Margaret Black

The Mammoth Cheese
By Sheri Holman, Atlantic Monthly Press, 440 pages, $24

After Sheri Holman’s highly praised first novel, The Stolen Tongue, in which a 15th-century monk searches for the missing body parts of his spiritual wife, the author secured her reputation with another intriguing historical tale, called The Dress Lodger, about a 19th-century prostitute who must rent the elaborate dress she wears to attract a higher class of clients. By contrast, Holman’s third novel, The Mammoth Cheese, takes place in the present, in the small rural town of Three Chimneys, Va. Nonetheless, it definitely involves a way of life that is fast becoming historical.

Three Chimneys, still living with its Revolutionary and Civil War past, makes news again when Manda Frank gives birth to 11 babies, the smallest of whom is 16 ounces, a size, Manda thinks, “more fitting for a Coke than a baby.” Of course the births occasion a media circus, complete with carloads of stuffed animals, crates of diapers, smarmy messages of love, and endless donations of secondhand junk. The book opens with a marvelously awkward visit by Adams Brooke, candidate for the U.S. presidency, to the Franks’ horrible half- finished new house (another “donation”).

As several of the babies die, the mood gets ugly. To turn things around, Leland Vaughn, the earnest Anglican minister who had counseled Manda not to abort any of the fetuses, encourages another parishioner, bankrupt dairy farmer and cheesemaker Margaret Prickett, to produce a gigantic cheese just like the 1,200-pound cheese that was presented to President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Vaughn believes that making the cheese and its gala delivery to now-President Brooke will reunite the community and serve as a beacon in a world he sees increasingly given over to nihilism.

Although entertaining and multifaceted, plot is not the principal attraction of this engrossing book. Instead, it’s Holman’s extraordinary descriptions of places and processes and, particularly, her rich cast of beautifully realized characters. Recently divorced Margaret, for example, is a hard- working, forceful purist who insists on paying off her dead father’s debts while at the same time trying to save the family farm for her 13-year-old daughter, Polly. Much to Polly’s disgust, Margaret also has decided that both of them will live simple, natural, uncorrupted lives. After a day spent milking cows (by hand), forking hay, and working her cheeses, Margaret “sifted flour onto the worm-knotted farmer’s table in the center of the room and slammed the bread down, punching and heeling the gluten to elasticity. Polly was tucked safely to bed. Margaret had laid out her one hundred percent cotton school clothes and was preparing a preservative-free breakfast: homemade yogurt and butter in the refrigerator, hand-canned peach jam in the pantry, fresh raisin bread. . . . Another day of saving her daughter from pollution.”

Polly, straining to escape to sugar and some corruption, falls under the thrall of a charismatic teacher, Mr. March, who stimulates his charges with pronouncements such as: “By the time I was your age, I’d stolen my first car. How many of you have stolen a car?” Through Polly, we get some terrific teenage material. She sneaks copies of Bride magazine to read with her buddy Bethany, who also purveys lurid gossip about Manda’s high school past, like the “fact” that “the doctors had pumped a gallon of sperm from Manda’s stomach, and when they’d had it analyzed, they found it came from five different men.” Polly doesn’t believe this canard, but nonetheless, when she realizes that Mr. March also had made a pass at Manda, she condemns her as that “white-trash, crooked-toothed, sallow Amanda Frank . . . who never made above a C her entire life, who skinned her own game and had the dirty fingernails to show for it.”

When Bethany turns traitor, “Polly could feel simpering, just by the subtle greasy shift in the air.” The evening her parents announce they are splitting, Polly is desperately trying to watch a Beatles documentary (on PBS, so permissible). When her parents finally let her go, “. . . it was too late. John had already been assassinated and George was dead of cancer.”

Despite local attitudes, trailer-trash Manda and her husband demonstrate a secret loving decency from the time “they’d met as quietly failing students in the same math class.” Manda is wondrously in tune with the hunting dogs she raises. After her horrific delivery, she’s given morphine. “Manda felt like she’d been turned off the leash . . . [she] slipped her collar and raced through the morning meadow, hot on a scent, tonguing her excitement. In her life she’d raised hunters who tailed and watched the others, hunters that refused to hark and move up with their running mates. Some she’d been able to correct, others continued on their stubborn way and were of no use to anybody. She’d raised quitters and babblers, and potterers and ghost trailers, but never, until the morphine, had she run along side them. . . .”

Holman’s got a rich vein of humor. Along the main street of Three Chimneys, “wrapped in white lights like snow princesses, [the oaks] greeted Baby Jesus each December; girt with wide yellow ribbons, they fretted over hostages and mourned missing veterans. Now . . . the oaks wore pink and blue sashes for the Frank Eleven, with rattles hung from their boughs like polystyrene icicles.” Margaret’s cows demonstrate preferences in music—Frank Sinatra—and the journey of the cheese to Washington, D.C. is a satirical tour de force of Jefferson impersonators, Civil War reenactors, tacky floats, and relentless boosterism. When Margaret finally gives in to the man who’s loved her for decades, she wonders, now that “she was old, and sharp as baling wire. . . what a man looked like who was willing to kiss an electric fence.”

This book is too well written and too much fun to miss.

Add Rhetoric Liberally, Reduce

Big Lies: The Right Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth
By Joe Conason, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages, $24.95

As a columnist, Joe Conason is something of a liberal wind-up toy. Twist the crank and get your 750 words of, “Republican bad, Democrat good. Republican bad, Democrat good.” (Repeat as necessary.)

Admittedly, that’s a pretty reductive analysis, but Big Lies is a reductive book—even if its author is nobly trying to dismantle the political mythology of the American right. A mythology that, thanks to the tireless crusading of neoconservative activists, intellectuals and a gaggle of fire-breathing pundits, has commandeered the mantle of conventional wisdom.

For those with better things to do than keep tabs on the punditry, Conason is a columnist for The New York Observer, a blogger for and author (with Gene Lyons) of The Hunting of The President: The Ten Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton. With its big red letters on a white backdrop, Big Lies is marketed as a political rant to be dropped on the same bookstore tables as those from Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly and the rest.

Each chapter of Big Lies is devoted to, you guessed it, a big lie. Examples include, “Tax-cutting Republicans are friends of the common man, while liberals are snobbish elitists who despise the work ethic”; and, “Conservatives truly love America and support the armed forces, while liberals are unpatriotic draft dodgers.”

After an all-too-brief exegesis on how the right exploits these fibs, Conason proceeds to hammer (and hammer) examples of contradicting information culled mostly from various newspapers. Two of the most delightful chapters take conservatives to task for their bogus populism and phony moralizing. By way of example, Conason offers our current commando-in-chief, who has famously repudiated his patrician past (the elite New England boarding school, the white-boy affirmative action to Yale and Harvard B-School) in favor of a salt-of-the-Texas-earth routine. Conason also sticks similar charges to Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom rake in millions by demonizing big-city liberal elites and romanticizing the suburban common man. And where do these millionaire media moguls reside? Liberal Manhattan.

While Conason shoots down canards like a deft sniper, he never acknowledges that these “big lies” are buried beneath the surface of political discourse and not deployed in the more subtle crossfire of day-to-day wrangling. Sure, a blowhard blogger like Andrew Sullivan might suggest, as he famously did after 9/11, that coastal liberals constitute an anti-American “fifth column,” but real influence peddlers don’t engage in the same type of public smack-talking.

Conason also fails to make important distinctions. For instance, he repeatedly references influential conservative thinkers like Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, and William Kristol in the same breath as blowhard pundits like Coulter and company. To Conason, the right is simply the right—which isn’t quite right.

Another example of Big Lies’ small vision is its unwillingness to hold liberals accountable for the state of contemporary liberalism. If you haven’t heard, this manifests itself in less than a third of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats. According to Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn, the Dems haven’t been in such a sorry state since before the New Deal. But in the world of wind-up-toy Joe, this isn’t the result of the party’s failure to articulate a platform more distinguishable than “we’re not Republicans” or Bill Clinton’s shucking liberal concerns for centrist booty. Nope, it’s all about blaming the GOP. Though he resorts to trite disclaimers (not all Republicans are: racist, homophobic, corporate lackeys, baby killers . . . ) his failure to look inward is an act of staggering partisanship that serves to discredit his effort.

As a weekly columnist, Conason does a great job of exposing the peccadilloes of our current administration. However, at book length he’s redundant and boring. Had this book been titled An Encyclopedia of Republican Malfeasance 1854-Present, than perhaps it might pass without comment, as most nonsavants don’t feel compelled to read reference books cover to cover. For those who worship at what the New York Press’s Matt Taibbi calls “the church of lefty self congratulation,” perhaps Big Lies offers solace in a time of Republican rule. What it offers the rest of us is less obvious.

—John Dicker

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