Brad Tyer's Opportunity, Montana is a moving, entertaining, and a truly remarkable debut about one tiny town and its recovery from an environmental catastrophe. Part history, part memoir, Tyer's book makes sure Opportunity is now on the map. For Tip Sheet, Tyer shares 10 books that did the same for other small towns.
Having just published my first book, Opportunity, Montana, which is in large part about a small town, and having lived in some smallish ones, it might be reasonable to assume that I’ve got a library full of small-town titles. It’s not true. My reading list is almost as idiosyncratic (i.e. woefully unstructured) as the residential itinerary that’s found me living in a dozen far-flung corners of five states over the last decade, some big, some mid, some very small. So to prepare for this list I did what any reporter would do: I put out the call on Facebook for recommendations. What I got in return were welcome reminders of long-forgotten books and a whole new stack to add to the must-read-pile . I’m sure, based on near unanimity among commentators, that Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables are exemplary small-town reads, but — can I admit this? — I haven’t read them. And recommending the unread seems poor form. Instead, I’m sticking to what I know. So please don’t think this is any kind of authoritative, or studied, or even defensible “Small-Town Top 10.” These are rather “10 That Made An Impression On Me,” whether they treat a town where I’ve lived, a town I barely recognize from the off-ramp, or a town that exists nowhere but the map of some reader’s imagination.
1. Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee - In the late 1990s, a crooked anti-drug task force falsely arrested and convicted 47 residents of the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia, population 5,000. The evidence-free sting put a full fifth of Tulia’s small black community behind bars. Blakeslee follows this story of rogue cops and federal drug policies gone wrong to its semi-satisfying conclusion: the eventual overturning of the grossly ill-gotten sentences. Along the way, he shows a small community’s struggles with economic fate and demographic fact, and how internal divisions open the door to exploitation by unscrupulous outsiders. Also: Some people are still basically racist.
2. Whitewater by Paul Horgan - The landmark at the heart of Horgan’s 1970 novel about the fictional Texas town of Whitewater is a bulb-topped municipal water tower—the visual definition of remnant small-town America. Outgrowing that fixture’s shadow is the book’s almost literal subject, told through the story of three high school kids trying—and in two cases failing to come of age. Those water towers, and the small-town travails they signal, are almost everywhere.
3. Splendora by Edward Swift - In the fictional East Texas town of Splendora (not to be mistaken for the real East Texas town of Splendora), a drab county courthouse is the novel’s metaphorical centerpiece, to the extent that anything can distract from New Orleans-debauched native son Timothy John Coldridge, dba Miss Jessie Gatewood, the town’s new undercover transvestite librarian. As a semi-satirical novel of manners, Splendora is wildly undersung. As an interpreter of small-town East Texas, Swift is as good as it gets.
4. The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry - Part 1 of what came to be a trilogy—with Texasville and Duane’s Depressed—centered on the fictional but thoroughly precedented town of Thalia, Texas. That’s not the suburban Texas I grew up in, but if I’ve seen that one-block town square and imagined that movie-house open for business once, I’ve seen and imagined it a thousand times. And it’s more alive today in McMurtry’s book than it will ever be again on actual Texas soil.
5. Rabbit Run by John Updike - A title could hardly be more literal in summarizing the main thread of small-town fictions. Most of the books on this list are about limitation and escape, one way or another, and the small towns aren’t the ones being escaped to. Rabbit Angstrom panics at marriage and adulthood, sure, but Updike’s painstakingly drawn Mount Judge, Pennsylvania, adjacent to crumbling Brewer, is no less oppressive in its redbrick restraints. Family, place, they’re both the same thing, and equally hard to leave.
6. Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, A Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response by Lynn Powell - Oberlin, Ohio, population 8,000 or so, largely associated with historically free-spirited Oberlin College, is the antithesis of literature’s standard-issue small-minded small town, at least on the surface. But when a drug-store photo technician alerted local prosecutors to a potentially pornographic picture of a local photographer’s pre-teen daughter, sides were taken and allegations were spread, well, liberally. Powell’s view on the case is long and wise, with the empathy and insight only an insider could deliver.
7. Sig Byrd’s Houston by Sig Byrd - This is probably cheating—Houston already held half a million souls by 1950, when newspaperman Sig Byrd was writing pithy homages to an old, weird Houston that was already disappearing in that city’s ever-present rush to the future. There’s never been any shortage of Texas writers willing to inflate a subject, but Byrd’s singular talent was to make it small, precise, and particular. Sig Byrd’s Houston, now long out of print, makes Houston feels more like a neighborhood than a metropolis, and the writing ranks with anything Mike Royko or Joseph Mitchell ever penned.
8. On the Rez by Ian Frazier - Wyoming’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota tribe, is no typical small town, if only because the circumstances of its creation tend to amplify typical small-town troubles and triumphs. Read it because it’s important. Read it because it sings. Read it because Ian Frazier wrote it. Read anything by Ian Frazier.
9. Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo by A.G. Mojtabai - Texas has smaller towns than Amarillo, population 200,000, but none that are so united and divided by nuclear weapons, assembled and disassembled at the Pantex plant near town, and nowhere else in the country. Company towns can take the company on faith, and when the company in question manufactures armageddon, faith can take a fatalistic turn. A thoughtful take on an atypical cow town.
10. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter - Baxter’s Ann Arbor is smaller than the census might suggest. Small enough (spoiler alert) for a man to die in an ambulance because a college football game is clogging traffic. Everything seems connected by a sidewalk in Baxter’s neighborly Midwestern enclave. You could fall in love with someone from a whole different side of town just walking the dog.