Friday, January 25, 2008

Once I Had A Love, And It Was A Gas

By Kevin Guilfoile

I bet there's a statistician somewhere who could tell me the best place in the United States to grow up if you want to be a writer. Some little town tucked away somewhere that produces prose masters and poets by the busload. No doubt if you had the time to do all the research and graphing and geographical mapping you'd find such a magical spot, probably down south, a place where they wonder about the water, a village that defies probability.

I grew up in Cooperstown, New York, which in just the last couple years has produced three novelists (and possibly a fourth one soon): The talented Eugena Pilek (Cooperstown) was a year or two behind me, and Lauren Groff (whose novel The Monsters of Templeton will be published next month) graduated in 1996. That might not seem like a lot. Maybe it isn't. But when you consider that the public high school in Cooperstown boasts only about 90 kids in a class, that's better than one novelist for every 300 graduates over that span. It seems like a fair percentage.

Cooperstown is a village steeped in mythology. Pioneer myth. Native American myth. Baseball myth. There was always someone who had claimed to have seen a monster in the lake. Every third Victorian home had a ghost. It's a place where the cemeteries outnumber the traffic lights seven to one. It was where America's first homegrown blockbuster novelist was born and raised.

Cooperstown is a factory town where the factory makes stories. Or it was.

In her debut, Lauren Groff changes the name of the village to Templeton, just as James Fenimore Cooper did in his books. But she gets everything else about the place astoundingly accurate. Even when the lake monster dies and they beach his mammoth, prehistoric carcass in Lakefront Park, the nonchalance of the townfolk, while all the rest of the world loses its head over the discovery, is spot on.

If I can quote her:

In the past, the tourists had never really taken up much of our attention. They held no part in the social strata of Templeton: they existed in our periphery, essential but unimportant. Since the hospital came in 1918, the doctors had made up the highest base, filling the town with money and brains, running the country club, opening the galleries. The only rung above them held our few millionaires: the ambassador, the railroad magnate, the wonderful wealthy woman who made sure there were flowers everywhere, the Falconers with their beery fortune, not to mention both sides of my family until we lost it all. Below the doctors were the other white-collar people: hospital administrators, attorneys, librarians, and below them were the farmers, who used to be important, but with the decline of the New York dairy heifer were now associated with malt liquor and bonfires and hickishness. Below them the random townies who filled the Bold Dragoon on weekends. When the new Opera House opened in 1986, we reluctantly opened ranks for the Opera visitors with their couture gowns and Mercedes, but even they were eventually shunted off to Springfield on the other side of the lake. When the Park of Dreams opened in a cow field in Hartwick Seminary, south of town, we thought that a few Little Leaguers wouldn't be able to change the topography of the town that much. We didn't expect that they would bring their parents, and that the parents (cheesy, loud people with cellulite under their shorts and minivans soaped up with TEMPLETON OR BUST! and CHESTERTON CHARGERS ARE #1) would demand cheap restaurants and a better grocery store and plasticky chain hotels and miniature golf. We had no idea that the Park of Dreams would expand to hold 1200 screaming baseball brats per week, plus about 600 of their awful parents. Though we tried to keep them relegated to Hartwick Seminary, three miles south of Templeton proper, we didn't know that such demand would transform the face of the town. The sewing store, the dollhouse store, the toy store, even the Farm and Home would become stores that merely slutted themselves to baseball. Now, nearly every store was brimming with memorabilia or bats. The tourists were getting harder to ignore.

I know anyone who grew up in Cooperstown, anyone who has ever loved the place, will find a lot of painful truth in that. As a former stock boy at the Farm and Home Bargain Center, I know I do.

The Monsters of Templeton is getting big buzz in advance of its publication February 5. In his EW column a few months ago, Stephen King raved: "(Templeton is) a town that will remind readers of Ray Bradbury at his most magical. There are monsters, murders, bastards, and ne'er-do-wells, almost without number. I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end, and there is no higher success than that."

I would suggest to the half million or so tourists who are headed to Cooperstown this year that The Monsters of Templeton is the book you need to take with you. Read it on a bench in Lakefront Park, or in an Adirondack chair on the Otesaga Hotel veranda. Take it with you to the Dreams Park and dip into it between your kid's at bats. Finish this book while you are there and I promise you'll really have learned something about the place by the time you leave.


As long as we're talking about new books, I want to remind everyone that Marcus Sakey's latest, At The City's Edge, is off Marcus's laptop and in stores now. Get it. Open it. Smell it. Read it.