Terry Teachout was a clumsy, nearsighted teacher’s pet who grew up in Sikeston, Missouri, population 17,431—”A Community That Works!” as its boosters trumpet.
Teachout stumbled through Little League and Boy Scouts, he tells us in his memoir, and distinguished himself in school as “the very worst kind of Goody Two-Shoes.” He carried an olive-drab briefcase and once fell down a flight of stairs while trying to impress two girls. Teachout writes well of his own sissyhood. In fact, I wish he had given us more: the pain, the awkwardness, the pockmarks, the right-field misplays, the Friday nights spent squirreled away reading sci-fi paperbacks, the unrealized cheerleader fantasies. This is the book Teachout should have written: Memories of a Small-Town Geek.
As a teenager, Teachout finds partial social salvation through music. He takes up the violin and the bass guitar and discovers “the incomparable joy of doing something really well.” He joins a hillbilly band. Sour Mash, and plays “I Saw the Light” in churches and Holiday Inn bars. Although his bandmates make him the butt of their crude jokes, Teachout finally belongs. What’s more, he is—in a retro way—cool.
City Limits drags us along with Teachout to William Jewell College, where Greek-Independent rivalry flares; then to a bank teller’s job in Kansas City, where he sees a stick-up man gunned down; then on to the University of Illinois, where he is understandably glum while manning a suicide hotline; finally, he musters up the moxie to bid farewell to the humdrum Midwest and stake his claim in New York City, where he falls in with a notorious gang of grifters, weirdos, and pansy-ass militarists, a/k/a the Manhattan Conservatives. His adventures with this motley crew will be related, no doubt, in Volume Two of the 35-year-old Mr. Teachout’s autobiography-in-progress.
The post-Sikeston years are on the dull side, although Teachout sketches fine portraits of two musicians: decrepit Woody Herman, driving his Thundering Herd across the Midwest, and Harry Jenks, a pizza parlor pianist with no ambition but boundless talent—the antithesis, one suspects, of many of Teachout’s current pals. As for Sikeston: well, the sturdy values that Teachout acquired back home he will carry within no matter how far he roams, blah blah blah. “I am like a million other Americans who grew up and moved away from the small towns of their childhood,” he writes. “We cannot go back; we are not at home where we are. We are exiles from the lost heart of the land we love.”
Come on. The “land we love” wasn’t lost, it was abandoned. Take a good look around your hometown. The largest supermarket in mine was just bought by a Dutch concern; our banks are all headquartered elsewhere, and our city and school budgets are largely driven by federal and state mandate. Men making a livable wage are laid off and replaced by part-timers who get no benefits. In desperation, a neighboring town begs an out-of-state company to build an incinerator. The big houses—the mansions on the hill—are torn down. The brick factories in which my ancestors sweated and bled stand empty. Rats run through the corridors; wild boys sneak in through busted windows, swigging Malt Duck and blasting Megadeath. The smart kids who go off to college and become doctors never return; the louring sky darkens.
Is this happening in Sikeston, too? Here and there we catch glimpses of decay. “A shopping mall was built on the edge of town,” Teachout notes, “and the downtown stores, one by one, started to sell off their stock and close their doors.” The Interstate bypassed downtown Sikeston, eliminating drive-through commerce. But Teachout opts for the kinder, gentler cliches of Republican commercials: “Sikeston, Missouri, is still a place where people salute the flag and don’t ask for receipts, where everybody knows who your parents were and what they did for a living. It is narrow and kind and decent and good, and I am blessed to have been raised in its shabby, forgiving bosom. It is my hometown; it is your hometown, too.”
No, it’s not. That “narrow and good and decent” mist is lazy Hollywood wistfulness; I half expected Ronald Reagan and Donna Reed to stroll down Teachout’s street on the way to Pop’s Soda Shop for a double malted. Neighborliness and a shared historical memory are among the wonderful features of small-town living, but Teachout’s Sikeston is never individuated; we do not learn how and why it is different from every other place on earth. (As I’m sure it is.)
Once urbanized, Teachout is no John Howard Payne (“An exile from home, splendor dazzles in vain; O, give me my lowly thatched cottage again!”). He plays the role of the wide-eyed rube, gushingly thankful to the Upper East Side dames who invite him to cocktail parties: “I sometimes feel like an awe-struck visitor from a poorer planet, looking at the shiny world around me and scratching my head in hopeless confusion.” Nothing in City Limits will disturb your average Manhattan editor or Los Angeles screenwriter, who view that great flown-over vastitude connecting Citibank with Disney as one big blurry sprawl of Wonder Bread-eaters, weather monologists, and hooded David Duke fans.
Teachout takes it for granted that gifted or ambitious youngsters must flee to the city: “It would be useless for me to pretend that I will ever return to my hometown for good, or even for very long. I cannot pursue my hopes and dreams there.” Sadly, he may be right. My technophile friends assure me that computers and fax machines and Federal Express have made it easier for our rustic Teachouts to survive, even thrive, while staying put. But these distance-shrinking devices assume that the market for one’s work is in faraway cities; they simply bring New York City closer to Sikeston, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. How can we encourage the development of an indigenous, proudly parochial Sikeston culture? Not community players’ productions of Fiddler on the Roof (which Teachout humorously describes) but vital, piquant works by, about, and for Missourians?
Darned if I know. The obvious promoters of local culture, small-city newspapers, have been swallowed by the Gannett/Knight-Ridder octopus, and the monster seems in no mood to disgorge them. Colleges and universities are usually alien nests of sheepskinned transients. Television stations are tiny links in huge chains. The global village has crushed the globe of villages.
What would have become of Terry Teachout had he stayed in Sikeston? He might have turned bitter, like other small-town boys with thwarted artistic ambitions, for instance Edgar Lee Masters’ Archibald Higbie:
I loathed you, Spoon River.
I tried to rise above you,
I was ashamed of you. I despised you
As the place of my nativity.
There was no culture, you know, in Spoon River,
And I burned with shame and
held my peace.
And what could I do, all covered over
And weighted down with western soil.
Except aspire, and pray for another
Birth in the world, with all of Spoon River
Rooted out of my soul?
Or maybe not. According to the dust jacket, Teachout is “currently at work on a biography of H.L. Mencken.” With a good college library up the road in Cape Girardeau, and a round-trip ticket to Baltimore in his pocket, Teachout could write that book in Sikeston. But he won’t, and I-guess I don’t blame him. Here’s why: when USA Today (itself a malignant tumor) recently asked Americans why they live where they live, 39 percent said “money,” 33 percent said “jobs,” and 12 percent said “stay close to relatives.”
Is this the choice we face? Poverty and mom’s Christmas cookies in Sikeston versus a satisfying, well-paying job in Babylon? The skilled man—the farmer, the carpenter, the cook—can have it both ways. But until we figure out how to bring job, money, and family into rough concordance, rather than conflict, many more Sikestons will lose many more Terry Teachouts; everybody’s loss is nobody’s gain.
Oh, well: you gotta have faith. So hey all you hicks—you uprooted jocks and eggheads and punks and wallflowers and dopers and drifters—why not go home? Sikeston and Fargo and Seneca Falls need you. Your hometowns are dying. Flowery idylls are appreciated, but your presence there is even better.
[City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy, by Terry Teachout (New York: Poseidon Press) 204 pp., $19.00]