THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT

By Sarah Vowell

(Simon & Schuster, $22)

Hello, and welcome to America. You have the right to eat lunch underground. You

"/>

The Mostly Sunny Patriot

Sarah Vowell takes on American patriotism.

THE PARTLY CLOUDY PATRIOT

By Sarah Vowell

(Simon & Schuster, $22)

Hello, and welcome to America. You have the right to eat lunch underground. You have the right to vote, although a majority of votes might not elect the official. You have the right to leave work during business hours to play Pop-a-Shot at ESPN Zone. You have the right to pursue happiness, Sarah Vowell reminds you in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, even if your particular brand of happiness involves touring the former homes of burned witches. In the essays collected here, Vowell waxes patriotic over the contents of the United States of America—a place where she chooses to pursue happiness in the company of Internet discussion groups and overgrown nerds who can't even lift their own weight over the bar.

Sarah Vowell and her friends from work who did not make the team in high school carry out their patriotic duty by playing hooky from the office and paying quarters for video games in Times Square. Goofing off, according to Vowell, is on patriotic par with driving to D.C. in the winter, with Tom and company from the Internet discussion group, to belt out the national anthem through tears at President Bush's inauguration. This is Vowell's particular brand of patriotism—a reflection of the popular levels of citizens' accord and dissent, with just enough positivism to sustain the national sentiment, "United We Stand."

Vowell condones inconsistent behavior consistently: She voted for Al Gore, yet she attends the swearing in of his opponent to sing her support. She believes, like many, that Bush was not the winner of the popular election, yet she shows up to witness the remnants of a failing political process. And she has mixed feelings about bumper stickers and T-shirts that proclaim "United We Stand" because that's a euphemistic way of agreeing with a war that has branded the cherished American right to dissent and renamed it terrorism.

To inspire pangs of patriotism, Sarah Vowell demonstrates a range of ways to acquaint yourself with this amorphous country. Visit Witch City, a.k.a. Salem, Mass., to pay homage to colonial dissent stifling. Tour the homes of women burned at the stake for their quick wit and sharp tongues. Eat lunch in the Underground Lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to contemplate the ecological beauty of a national park over a bag of potato chips. The Lunchroom, as Vowell imparts, remains open to serve you despite the National Park Service's Vail Agenda suggesting the removal of all unnecessary facilities. The New Mexico you've seen on the map, light yellow with a large black dot for its capital, acquires detail in Vowell's portrayal: New Mexico not only occupies U.S. ground, it even has a cavernous underground where you can eat snacks. Elsewhere, Massachusetts, mixed in with gray New England, hosts ghosts and a dodgy past. Vowell's weekend getaways to lesser-known destinations and her regard for what happened where give life and contour to this large slice of continent.

Sarah Vowell reconnoiters her way around the map, recording details with the pen of a patriot. Each new inconsistency she discovers deepens her affection for this land of 'say one thing, do another.' She enjoys her visit to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace because it honors Richard Nixon, the man, while dealing with the quarrelsome scandals attached to his presidency. Vowell appreciates and pays homage to various angles of the story, demonstrating the range of points of view it takes to acquaint yourself with your land. Your city, your state, your country are imbued with both gory and mundane details; she is able to find them. In this book, patriotism is a product of curiosity, and it grows with each thumbtack she sticks on the map.

Having moved from Oklahoma to Bozeman, Mont., to San Francisco to Chicago to New York City, Sarah Vowell is, admittedly, well acquainted with many parts of the United States of America. The Partly Cloudy Patriot chronicles her move to the East Coast, where she settles on the Lower West Side of Manhattan to report on another slice of American life living in the new cradle of patriotism. You can't walk far in New York City without being reminded what country you're in. Vowell takes to the streets, whispering "We the people, we the people" on a rush-hour subway train as a way to remind herself that everyone's right to pursue happiness is equal. In the crush of American citizens all around her, humanity and the memory of mass destruction seduce her into responsible citizenship. A sign posted on the subway train—"If you are sick, you will not be left alone"—inspires her faith in her country and her humanitarian goodwill.

If you can feel good about your country and you feel the need to help your fellow citizens while riding the subway at the end of the workday, she means to say, then you are a patriot. Embrace the contradictions, explore far-flung American haunts, respect the rights of fellow citizens, and establish a kinship with sweaty subway riders. The Partly Cloudy Patriot shines full sun on the United States of America, cheerfully pointing out a range of ways to participate patriotically in the pursuit of happiness. Sarah Vowell carries out her patriotic duty flawlessly: She finds happiness in this flawed land.

info@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus