WHITE TOWN DROWSING by Ron Powers

WHITE TOWN DROWSING

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Echoing Russell Baker's Growing Up and William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, Powers tells of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, the river town immortalized as the home of Mark Twain and recalled by him (in Powers' words) as ""a white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning, the streets empty or pretty nearly so."" A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and now media critic for CBS News, Powers pitches his memoir mostly in high journalese, a Latinate diction that longs for the homely rhythms and idioms of Twain: ""The river lent animation to the town; the river blessed and cursed Hannibal with animation in much the same way that Mark Twain blessed and cursed Hannibal with his legacy. The blessing lay in the river's usefulness as a marketing conduit, and in its beauty, and in its irresistible metaphor as memory; Hannibal has forever been dreamily in love with its unrequiting past. The curse lay in flooding. Six or seven times a century, the Mississippi could swell up out of its channel and drown the very epicenter of commerce (railroads, hotels, restaurants, shops and stores) that its animating force had coaxed to the riverbanks. Hannibal's most peculiar trait has been its susceptilibility to ruination from its assets."" Despite this style, Powers' memoir bears much charm as ""inexpressible and darkly sublime"" feelings and pictures rise from the past (he was born three weeks before Pearl Harbor in 1941). He left Hannibal in 1959; now going back, he finds the Kresge dime store vanished, the childhood movie theater a paint and wallpaper store: ""the elegant Mark Twain Hotel stood gutted, stripped of its chandeliers and moldings."" He tells the history of Hannibal and describes the despotic grip the image of Twain has on the town; follows the staging of a Mark Twain Sesquicentennial Celebration, a half-success or semi-disaster, that cost some politicos their jobs; and rehearses Twain's tearful last visit to Hannibal in old age. Enjoyable indeed, but not the knockout it might have been.

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1986
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown