I don't get big cities.
I've lived in big cities for the past ten years -- Toronto, Tokyo, Phnom Penh -- but I don't get them.
My hometown had a population that topped out at around one hundred and twenty thousand; not small, no, but not quite the size of the million-plus inhabitants whose environs I've lived in and around since graduating from university.
The thing is, in big cities, everything's open. Literally, figuratively. It's there. You don't have to look for sleaze, or crime, or weirdos on the street, trying to sell you drugs or women or Jesus or food. They will come up to, say how-de-do, hand you a flyer, drop you a line. Like it or not.
Small towns, small cities, are different.
Big cities seem to think they have a patent on outrageous, odd, borderline criminal behavior. (Just check out Las Vegas's official slogan: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Which practically invites you into a wonderland of debauchery and decadence, no hassles, no after-effects, and, most importantly, friends and neighbours, boys and girls, no guilt. Everything will stay freeze-dried and locked-up in those there parts.) What I've realized, though, is that small towns are every bit as weird and strange and scary and demented. They just don't have billboards to advertise it.
The best writers know this, which is why I've always gobbled up fiction about small-town life. Behind the kids playing street hockey and the kindly, elderly neighbours waving hello, how are you, come again soon, there are the same human foibles, the same pain and longing, the identical confusion that can be found on urban streetcorners.
Right now I'm making my way through Some Came Running by James Jones, a late-fifties novel that reads somewhat dated and yet is also chock-full of astounding and spot-on insights about the way that small-town folk talk and think act. It's the kind of book that writers like Mailer and Vidal and Baldwin and Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald tried to tackle in their youth, books that sought to encompass the entire spectrum of human behavior. It reeks of ambition. It's long and unwieldly and full of colourful, recognizable characters. The fictional town depicted in the book reminds me of where I grew up; it reminds me of people I know (or think I know).
Novels like this make me realize that where I come from, where I am rooted, has a history and common humanity all its own. I'll never understand big cities, or the people who come from them, but through fiction I can try to convince myself that my own background has a validity and resonance; I can try to make myself believe that the people I grew up with can be understood. If only for a page or two.
I could read and breathe and live in these kinds of books for days, weeks, a life. Books like Paradise Falls by Don Robertson, or Raintreet County by Ross Lockridge, Jr., or Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Books that highlight the grotesque and noble of small-town existence, that acknowledge the common humanity to be found in the corners of rooms, the edge of beds, and in the minute yet mountainous gaps that inevitably exist between the schoolroom bell and the factory siren that calls everyone, eventually, back to work.