Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews
B O O K   R E V I E W

Winter 2003

Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine  


Things I Like About America
Personal Narratives 
by Poe Ballantine
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, Portland, Oregon
221 pp. $12.95

There is a peculiar sensibility at work in Things I Like About America, and by “peculiar” I mean ... well, just about every practical definition of the word. Poe Ballantine’s voice is eccentric, distinct from all others, and belonging primarily to one person, group or kind. (Thank you, American Heritage.) The question is: Should you as a reader lend your time and ear to this particular peculiar voice?

The answer is a reserved but pointed “Yes.” Ballantine’s personal narratives focus on his intermittently wayward life, on small towns, greasy spoons, temporary jobs and broken wounded wayfarers like himself. The book is fretted with the kind of real-life individuals one only meets while lounging around 3 A.M. St. Louis bus depots or while living above alternately shabby and Spic-and-Span efficiencies in America’s heartland. Even when departing for an excursion into an expatriate enclave in Mexico, this is America with all its congenital psoriasis and desperation, with all its goodwill and misguided animus—and it is not always a pleasant place to visit, much less inhabit for a month or two. Ballantine does manage to leaven the flat unraised character of this sourdough with an occasional dash of wry and necessary humor, but his humorous perceptions function more as comic relief than as any persistent theme. Though much of Things I Like About America comes across as a light, apt, and conversational travelogue of the farce we call a homeland, don’t be fooled: its core reeks of a nearly suicidal perspiration. Most of the characters (especially the first person Ballantine) are one exploded fantasy short of self-extinction or inextricable catastrophe. When his bad back and neck allow, the author loves to hunker down with fellow work-a-day fringe dwellers and cook them a meal while watching Time perform its inevitable rapine work. His characters crowd around in various stages of pathos, ardor or antipathy expecting a society that has never existed and never will, but it is in the narrator’s on-the-road/off-the-road search for that perfect town that will be his (and his alone) that we see most poignantly the futility of expectation and attachment to dreams. In a tangible and, yes, peculiar way, Things I Like About America reads almost like a series of Buddhist parables intended to frighten young adepts into enlightenment.

As a writer, Ballantine’s gifts fall clearly in the storyteller category—though his use (or more accurately, recognition) of symbol in everyday social interaction elevates him far above the usual confines of such a categorization. His eye for wry detail is as developed as that of any top-drawer satirist or sardonic bon vivant, but he chooses to employ it more subtly, letting the absurdity of life speak for itself without excess irony or frippery. His perceptions are uniformly cool, sharp and affecting. Like notes from a bell made brittle by too many nights of thirty-below dew points, they peal then shatter sending echoes and shards into the flesh of the reader’s consciousness. In Ballantine’s world, the trip between a joyful guffaw and overwhelming hopelessness takes the blink of a well-turned sentence. It doesn’t seem to matter what our particular take on life is; the stories teem with such substantial realism and human interest that we have no choice but to disregard our individual dispositions and get on the bus for the next disappointing town, the next rainy bus stop.

My only reservation with Ballantine’s work in Things I Like About America comes from his occasional tendency to launch into paragraphs of simplistic subject-object and subject-verb-object sentence structures, quite often exacerbating the problem by a slight over-reliance on limp auxiliary verbs. While this was not a problem in all or even most of Ballantine’s narratives, it did pop up often enough to pull me out of the text and make me dig for the cause of the sudden plodding rhythm. This structuring may well have been an intentional appeal to minimalist device; if so, it didn’t work for me. The author’s work flows much better when he works with a standard mix of simple, compound, and  complex; luckily, this is more often the case than the exception.

In the end, it is easy to understand why this author’s work is a favorite of Sy Safransky’s reality-centrist The Sun. (Eight of the eleven narratives were originally published there.) In his own peculiar way, Poe Ballantine stands as both victim and veritable witness to a barrage of very real and damaging American Dreams. The stories are well worth the price of admission.           


– CAW –