Svelte, unobtrusively perceptive reports from short-term journeys made to towns across the country for the author’s “U.S. Journal” pieces in the New Yorker.
After 25 years at the magazine under four editors, Singer (Citizen K, 1996, etc.) inherited the column from Calvin Trillin in 2000. He brings a dry, sophisticated, never condescending humor to the pieces, sometimes unceremoniously getting to the heart of the matter, at other times skirting about it to create an aura. He delves into several murder cases, typically long-cold medical mysteries that he sleuths in the same style as another long-time New Yorker writer, Berton Rouché, setting the principals against the essential backdrop of their surroundings to buttress his conjunctures. Singer doesn’t shy from less savory items, such as cockfighting (described at one point as “this quaint pastime,” a phrase dropped into the story so lightly that the reader is pulled to a complete stop before realizing the words are like tinder about to combust), or the fallout for a Middle Eastern community around Detroit as it parries the effects of 9/11 (anatomized in a series of sharp vignettes with the specific gravity of mercury). He has picked his targets well, striking a good balance between the highly implicational and the high-jinks, such as people riding snowmobiles up the steepest face they can find and praying before they either make a neat 180-degree turn or an avalanche whites them out. Singer also introduces a dose of politics, as in his account of the controversy over the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance in Madison, Wisconsin, a burg one Republican governor referred to as “fifty-two square miles surrounded by reality.” And everyone will cheer that the diner in Lee, Massachusetts, is still serving the food so many have enjoyed for so long.
Cerebral, covertly provocative vignettes of contemporary America’s often sad state.