Vowell shames you into wanting to be a better American.
By AARON GRAY
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
"The Partly Cloudy Patriot" by Sarah Vowell (Simon & amp; Schuster, $22; to be released Thursday).
Midway through "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," the new collection of essays by Sarah Vowell, the author gleefully recalls the time she watched David Letterman on TV defending himself against an accusation that he doesn't vote.
"I don't know if I'm capturing the intensity of this, of the sheer civic thrill, of watching someone so clearly offended by being called a nonvoter, as if nonvoter is some kind of curse word, a slanderous insult he couldn't not refute," Vowell writes. "His outrage was so -- there's no other word for it -- righteous. I was touched."
This is Vowell in a nutshell. Scratch the surface of her sometimes-cranky social commentary and you'll find an unabashed flag-waver underneath.
In wide-ranging tirades that find her referencing "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to make a point about Al Gore or name-dropping the B-52's "Rock Lobster" while discussing the Taliban, one thing is always evident: She really, really cares. She cares about the political process and about how events in American history shaped who she is.
Vowell, a regular contributor to "This American Life" on National Public Radio as well as several magazines, lets it be known that she spends her vacations in places like Gettysburg and that, as a teen, she identified with Anthony Michael Hall in "The Breakfast Club" because he'd gotten a fake ID only so he could vote.
Here's a surprise
But meanwhile Vowell accomplishes something surprising: She shames you into wanting to be a more involved, better informed American. The political process is so clearly personal to her that this book likely will make readers feel it should mean more to them as well.
Take "The Nerd Voice," her celebration of Al Gore and his bookish ways. It serves as a lesson in understanding a candidate beyond soundbites before voting.
"Gore's pencil neck tugs at my nerdy soul," Vowell writes. "I think the most lovable thing he has ever said can be found in his 1992 book 'Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.' On page 67, he asks, 'What happened to the climate in Yucatan around 950?' Something about the specifics of that query lit me up. For the first time, I could see casting my ballot for a man who would pose such a question. It was so boldy arcane. The kind of mind that would wonder about temperature variations on a Caribbean peninsula a thousand years ago might have the stomach to look into any number of Americans' peculiar concerns."
Not all of Vowell's essays deal with matters as weighty as American politics. There's her account of her Montana family's spending Thanksgiving with her in New York, her tribute to "Pop-A-Shot" basketball, her speculation about Tom Cruise's appeal, and her obituary for former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. In all of these, Vowell's wit, humor and often-surprising insights make the material enjoyable.
As in her previous collection of essays, "Take the Cannoli," some of the essays suffer from apparently being little more than verbatim transcripts of radio pieces from "This American Life," without much new added.
If you've already heard the piece, it feels like recycling. If you haven't heard it, you have a sense that it probably comes off better if you're actually listening to the voices of the people who Vowell talks with, instead of just reading about what they said.
Other sections veer off-course into self-indulgence, as if Vowell has become so sure of her voice and writing style that she's forgotten that it still helps to have a point.
"California as an Island," her recollection of the time she worked for a San Francisco gallery that specialized in antiquarian maps, begins and ends without ever revealing the reason for its existence. It comes off instead like an elderly person's rambling reminiscences.
But the best sections in the book add up to a sprawling tour of America, in all its contradictions. The title essay finds Vowell contemplating what it means to be a patriot after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Far from being a simple breast-beating anthem, the essay deals with the difficult balance now between supporting the country and voicing dissenting opinions.
"My ideal picture of citizenship will always be an argument, not a sing-along," she writes.