Hail Babylon!: In Search of the American City at the Close of the Millenium
by Andrei Codrescu
Hardcover, 248 pages.
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: May 1998
Reviewed by Scott Rettberg, 6/5/98
If I ever make it back to New Orleans, I’m going to look up Andrei Codrescu. Sure, he’ll probably be out of town, or busy telling funny stories on NPR, but after reading Hail Babylon!, I’m nearly sure I couldn’t possibly find a better guide to the Crescent City. Or, for that matter, a better travelling companion to anywhere else in the country. Why, you might ask, would I want the advice of a Transylvanian poet/intellectual for my journey into the heart of the American experience? Two reasons: he’s got a damn fine sense of humor, and he eats well:
A plate of huge, juicy shrimp next to a swirl of spicy sauce was so delightful I sank into it, completely forgetting my table companions for a moment. When I came out of my shrimp trance, I heard one of them say, “How come shrimp get this big in California? Something wrong with their hormones?”
If I’m ever in La Jolla, the first thing I’m going for is the shrimp. Hail Babylon! is a collection of short essays on Codrescu’s travels in American cities. The book is neither a conventional travel guide nor a heavy sociological treatise. Rather, it is a dizzying tour of some 20 locations here in the U.S.A. Listeners of NPR are probably acquainted with Codrescu’s slightly off-kilter sense of humor. He is a “foreigner” in this land, and maybe for the same reason it worked for De Toqueville, is better than any other writer I can think of at catching the significant details that distinguish one city from the next. It may be his experience as a radio journalist that makes his senses so sharp: he’s used to giving his audience a clear sense of a place within a very short span of time/words. He seeks out the strange in a destination, and uses anecdotes to bring to light the character of a city. From his essay on New Orleans:
The Mississippi, in its journey from the heartland to the gulf, brings here all of America’s sins and secrets. It’s a journey of downflow ethics. A few years ago in Minneapolis they busted a candidate for the city council for distributing Twinkies to an old folks home. They slapped him with two weeks of community service for attempted vote buying. At the same time in New Orleans, Governor Edwin Edwards was handing bags full of cash to Vegas boys in the lobby of a downtown hotel to pay his gambling debts. The governor was registered in the hotel under the name Lee. The Chinese name was part of Edwin’s famous sense of humor. When the citizenry was polled as to the propriety of the governor’s handing cash to Vegas boys in a hotel lobby where he was registered under a Chinese pseudonym, the majority opined that there was no harm done if it was his own money.
Codrescu is efficient, witty, and precise, but simultaneously relaxed about his prose. His paragraphs wind and curve and amble, like the Mississsippi above. Codrescu never talks down to his audience, or worries about offending our proprieties. When reading this book, we are in the hands of a racounteur. His love of New Orleans, his adopted home, springs from the same principles that guide his sense of style in writing: in the French Quarter, anything can happen, and it probably will. Where you have your first Hurricaine is not necessarily where you’ll end up by the time the night is through. You go where it takes you. Contradictions abound in New Orleans, and it is the space in between those contradictions that interests our intrepid reporter so much.
Codrescu occasionally wanders so far off the beaten path that we’re left to wonder if, in fact, there ever really was a beaten path. His quest for “the American City at the End of the Millennium” is not, in the traditional sense, a quest for any particular place or thing or idea. The joy here is to be found in the multiplicity. America, in Codrescu’s estimation, is more gumbo than melting pot. In spite of our retailers’ and our television networks’ best efforts to make us all the same, each of our cities is very different from the others. Place is a real factor in the way that we understand the world, and variety really is the spice(s) of life. Codrescu’s true talent is in locating the strange juxtapositions in our cities and towns: how “Graceland 2” brings Elvis together with Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, how New Yorkers have to struggle not to love the California lifestyle, how poets are treated in Vegas, how foreigners are apt to give you better directions in New York City than Gothamites themselves.
The details Codrescu highlights in these essays are more often superfluous and trivial, than serious and weighty. There is a definite quality of “kitsch” here. But kitsch as a cultural ceremony:
Cities speak in many languages. To the traveler and the tourist, they speak a shorthand intended to relieve them of their money. In exchange, they experience the frisson of the “exotic.” They carry back a modicum of sentiment and a bag full of souvenirs and photographs. It is a gentle operation that leads, in the best of cases, to a slight loss of provincialism and a lessening of xenophobia. The outer layer of this satisfaction is wrapped in the tourist’s own smug self-satisfaction. This is what Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, calls kitsch. Kitsch is harmless in the last days of our millenium: self-satisfaction is short-lived now, thanks to the never-ending streams of anxiety produced by ever-newer forms of the exotic.
I don’t think Codrescu would be ashamed to admit that he is himself a professional (as opposed to accidental) tourist. While he does an excellent job of encapsulating the history of a place, he never ventures into a city with a strong pre-formed impression, but seeks out its odd nooks and crannies, the kitsch which distinguishes it from the town up the road, and forms his impression from there. This book is saturated with a traveller’s love of the new and unknown. At the same time, it is a carnivalesque series of meditations on what America means, now that it is a postmodern nation. Conclusion: it means a lot of things and nothing in particular. Codrescu loves America, in all its quirkiness and absurdity, its beaches and its buildings, and its kitsch and its toxicity, its ironic splendor.
Going on the road this summer? Take Hail Babylon! with you. It’s the perfect book for the beach, or the car, or the plane. If you’re a carsick type, Codrescu’s meditations are just the right length for a quick read before lowering the window to expunge. If you’re staying home, read this book and you’ll feel like you just went on a whirlwind tour of these here states. You might even feel inspired to take advantage of those low prices at the pump to go seek out some kitsch of your own.
Originally published on Authors Review of Books, Author at the Miningco.