Entertaining Thoughts

In creative nonfiction writing you can sometimes get at the realities of group life by looking at what people do for entertainment. William Least Heat-Moon, for example, wrote in Blue Highways about his drive toward New Orleans and "Cajun Country."

I switched on the radio and turned the dial. Somewhere between a shill for a drive-up savings bank and loan and one for salvation, I found a raucous music, part bluegrass fiddle, part Texas guitar, part Highland concertina. Cajun voices sang an old, flattened French, part English, part undecipherable.

Looking for live Cajun music, I stopped in Opelousas at The Plantation Lounge. Somebody sat on every barstool; but a small man, seeing a stranger, jumped down, shook my hand, and insisted I take his seat. In the fast roll of Cajun English, he said it was the guest stool and by right belonged to me. The barmaid, a woman with coiled eyes, brought a Jax. "Is there Cajun music here tonight?" I asked.

"Jukebox is our music tonight," she snapped.

Heat-Moon not only succeeded in telling (showing) us something about the musical entertainment of some rural Cajun people in Louisiana, he also informed us about their unusual speech patterns. A few paragraphs later, he managed to slip in several more bits about their "entertainment" in a listing of references to Evangeline, who had come down from Nova Scotia (Acadia) in 1755.

If you've read Longfellow, you can't miss Cajunland once you get to the heart of it: Evangeline Downs (horses), Evangeline Speedway (autos), Evangeline Thruway (trucks), Evange-line Drive-In, and, someone just said, the Sweet Evangeline Whorehouse.

In an article David Halberstam wrote for Esquire in June 1985, "The Basket-Case State," he described at length the love affair Indiana has with basketball—its chief entertainment. By concentrating on even one form of entertainment, he manages to tell us something about life in Indiana (at least in his view):

It was a sport for the lonely. A kid did not need five or six other friends; he did not even need one. There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do. Their fathers nailed backboards and rims to the sides of garages or to nearby trees. The nets were waxed to make them last longer, and the kids spent their days shooting baskets in all kinds of weather. This was the land of great pure shooters, and the true mark of an Indiana high school basketball player was hitting the open shot.

A few paragraphs later, Halberstam claims that basketball game-going is a custom of the state:

Basketball worked in Indiana not just because kids wanted to play it but because adults needed to see it, needed to get into a car at night and drive to another place and hear other voices. So it began, and so it was ingrained in the customs of the state. What helped fan the flame was the instant sense of rivalry, the desire to beat the next village, particularly if it was a little larger. The town of five hundred longed to beat the metropolis of one thousand, and that metropolis ached to beat the city of three thousand, and the city of three thousand dreamed of beating the big city of six thousand. If it happened once every twenty years, said Hammel, that was good enough. The memory lasted, and the photograph of the team members, their hair all slicked down, stayed in the local barbershop a very long time.

Just after reading that fine article in 1985, I took a vacation trip through the Midwest (including Indiana) and found that the memory lasted not only because of the barbershops but because of the very large highway signs just outside town. There, we tourists with our lamentable lack of knowledge about basketball history are informed that this town's high school basketball team won the Regionals in 1980.

Halberstam gave us considerable insight when he told us that the people "needed to see it," needed to get out of the house "and hear other voices." I appreciated also the carefully selected verbs by which he described the emotional states of the various sized towns—the smallest "longed," the next "ached," and the next to largest merely "dreamed." Not simply an attempt to vary the verbs, this was writing (and thinking) at its best. I found this progression of emotion accurate. Such subtle accuracy must be strived for. A progression like that does not simply arrive on the page; it's sought. When finally found, it's a thrill only a writer can fully appreciate. Such are the rewards of writing.

Many creative nonfiction writers (including Norman Mailer) seem to enjoy writing about the celebrities of this world. In this final section about how writers frequently describe a group's entertainment as a way to understand the group, Norman Mailer tells us about the dangers of celebrity in an Esquire (December 1983) article, "The Prisoner of Celebrity," about Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

For celebrities are idiots more often than you would expect. Few of one's own remarks should still offer pleasure, but I do like, "Fame? Fame is a microphone in your mouth." To celebrities, the wages of success are those flashbulbs in the eye. If one were hit with no more than ten good jabs every day, the brain would soon reflect its damage; the flashbulbs are worse than jabs and sear one's delicacy. They even jar the last remains of your sensibility. So celebrities are surprisingly flat, bland, even disappointing when you talk to them. Their manner has something in common with the dull stuffed-glove feel in the handshake of a professional boxer. His hands are his instruments, so a fighter will guard his hands. Personality is the failing currency of overexposed celebrities, so over the years they know they must offer less and less to strangers. Those flashbulbs cauterize our souls.

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