Fat Girls in Des Moines," Bill Bryson (Granta 23, Spring 1988)
Introduction: This essay is also an example of travel writing, but as you will see, the tone is very different from Theroux's tone in "The Country Just Over the Fence." Bryson's humor in this essay can be biting at times, but Bryson also shows affection for the people he makes fun of. Also, "Fat Girls in Des Moines" is unusual travel writing in that it is not about a place the author encounters for the first time, but rather it is about Bryson's re-encountering the place he grew up. Notice how Bryson makes Des Moines feel like an alien world, but also how, gradually, he expresses a sense of belonging to that world.
I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to. When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can't wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there forever and ever.
Hardly anyone leaves. This is because Des Moines is the most powerful hypnotic known to man. Outside town there is a big sign that says: WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE. There isn't really. I just made that up. But the place does get a grip on you. People who have nothing to do with Des Moines drive in off the interstate, looking for gas or hamburgers, and stay forever. There's a New Jersey couple up the street from my parents' house whom you see wandering around from time to time looking faintly puzzled but strangely serene. Everybody in Des Moines is strangely serene.
The only person I ever knew in Des Moines who wasn't serene was Mr. Piper. Mr. Piper was my parents' neighbour, a leering, cherry-faced idiot who was forever getting drunk and crashing his car into telephone poles. Everywhere you went you encountered telephone poles and road signs leaning dangerously in testimony to Mr. Piper's driving habits. He distributed them all over the west side of town rather in the way dogs mark trees. Mr. Piper was the nearest possible human equivalent to Fred Flintstone, but less charming. He was a Shriner and a Republicaion — a Nixon Republican — and he appeared to feel he had a mission in life to spread offence. His favourite pastime, apart from getting drunk and crashing his car, was to get drunk and insult the neighbours, particularly us because we were Democrats, though he was prepared to insult Republicans when we weren't available.
Eventually, I grew up and moved to England. This irritated Mr. Piper almost beyond measure. It was worse than being a Democrat. Whenever I was in town, Mr. Piper would come over and chide me. "I don't know what you're doing over there with all those Limeys," he would say, "They're not clean people."
"Mr Piper, you don't know what you're talking about." I would reply in my affected British accent. "You are a cretin." You could say things like that to Mr. Piper because (one) he was a cretin and (two) he never listened to anything that was said to him.
"Bobbi and I went over to London two years ago and our hotel room didn't even have a bathroom in it." Mr. Piper would go on. "If you wanted to take a leak in the middle of the night, you had to walk about a mile down the hallway. That isn't a clean way to live."
"Mr. Piper, the English are paragons of cleanliness. It is a well-known fact that they use more soap per capital than anyone else in Europe."
Mr. Piper would snort derisively at this. "That doesn't mean diddly-squat, boy, just because they're cleaner than a bunch of Krauts and Eye-ties. My God, a dog's cleaner than a bunch of Krauts and Eye-ties. And I'll tell you something else: if his Daddy hadn't bought Illinois for him. John F. Kennedy would never have been elected President.
I had lived around Mr. Piper long enough not to be thrown by this abrupt change of tack. The theft of the 1960 presidential election was a long-standing plaint of his, one that he brought into the conversation every ten or twelve minutes regardless of the prevailing drift of the discussion. In 1963, during Kennedy's funeral, someone in the Waveland Tap punched Mr. Piper in the nose for making that remark. Mr. Piper was so furious that he went straight out and crashed his car into a telephone pole. Mr. Piper is dead now, which is of course one thing that Des Moines prepares you for.
When I was growing up, I used to think that the best thing about coming from Des Moines was that it meant you didn't come from anywhere else in Iowa. By Iowa standards, Des Moines is a Mecca of cosmopolitanism, a dynamic hub of wealth and education, where people wear three-piece suits and dark socks, often simultaneously. During the annual state high school basketball tournament, when the hayseeds from out in the state would flood into the city for a week, we used to accost them downtown and snidely offer to show them how to ride an escalator or negotiate a revolving door. This wasn't always so far from reality. My friend Stan, when he was about sixteen, had to go and stay with his cousin in some remote, dusty hamlet called Dog Water or Dunceville or some such improbable spot — the kind of place where if a dog gets run over by a truck everybody goes out to have a look at it. By the second week, delirious with boredom, Stan insisted that he and his cousin drive the fifty miles into the county town, Hooterville, and find something to do. They went bowling at an alley with warped lanes and chipped balls and afterwards had a chocolate soda and looked at a Playboy in a drugstore, and on the way home the cousin sighed with immense satisfaction and said, "Gee thanks, Stan. That was the best time I ever had in my whole life!" It's true.
I had to drive to Minneapolis once, and I went on a back road just to see the country. But there was nothing to see. It's just flat and hot, and full of corn and soybeans and hogs. I remember one long, shimmering stretch where I could see a couple of miles down the highway, and there was a brown dot beside the road. As I got closer, I saw it was a man sitting on a box by his front yard in some six-house town with a name like Spiggot or Urinal, watching my approach with inordinate interest. He watched me zip past, and in the rear-view mirror I could see him still watching me going on down the road until at last I disappeared into a heat haze. The whole thing must have taken about five minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if even now he thinks of me from time to time.
He was wearing a baseball cap. You can always spot an Iowa man because he is wearing a baseball cap advertising John Deere or a feed company, and because the back of his neck has been lasered into deep crevasses by years of driving a John Deere tractor back and forth in a blazing sun. (This does not do his mind a whole lot of good either.) His other distinguishing feature is that he looks ridiculous when he takes off his shirt because his neck and arms are chocolate brown and his torso is as white as a sow's belly. In Iowa it is called a farmer's tan and it is, I believe, a badge of distinction.
Iowa women are almost always sensationally overweight — you see them at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines on Saturdays, clammy and meaty in their shorts and halter-tops, looking a little like elephants dressed in children's clothes, yelling at their kids, calling names like Dwane and Shauna. Jack Kerouac, of all people, thought that Iowa women were the prettiest in the country, but I don't think he ever went to Merle Hay Mall on Saturday. I will say this, however — and it's a strange, strange thing — the teenaged daughters of these fat women are always utterly delectable, as soft and gloriously rounded and naturally fresh-smelling as a basket of fruit. I don't know what it is that happens to them, but it must be awful to marry one of these nubile cuties knowing that there is a time bomb ticking away in her that will at some unknown date make her bloat out into someting huge and grotesque, presumamably all of a sudden and without much notice, like a self-inflating raft from which the stopper has been abruptly jerked.
Even so, I don't think I would have stayed in Iowa. I never really felt at home there, even when I was small. In about 1957, my grandparents gave me a Viewmaster for my birthday and a packet of discs with the title "Iowa — Our Glorious State." I can remember thinking, even then, that the selection of glories was a trifle on the thin side. With no natural features of note, no national parks or battlefields or famous birthplaces, the Viewmaster people had to stretch their creative 3D talents to the full. Putting the Viewmaster to your eyes and clicking the white handle gave you, as I recall, a shot of Herbert Hoover's birthplace, impressively three dimensional, followed by Iowa's other great treasure, the Little Brown Church in the Vale (which inspired the song whose tune nobody every quite knows), the highway bridge over the Mississippi River at Davenport (all the cars seemed to be hurrying towards Illinois), a field of waving corn, the bridge over the Missouri River at Council Bluffs and the Little Brown Church in the Vale again, taken from another angle. I can remember thinking even then that there must be more to life than that.
As soon as I was old enough I left. I left Des Moines and Iowa and the United States and the War in Vietnam and Watergate, and settled across the world. And now when I come home it is to a foreign country, full of serial murderers and sports teams in the wrong towns (the Indianapolis Colts? The Toronto Blue Jays?) and a personable old fart who is President. My mother knew that personable old fart when he was a sportscaster called Dutch Reagan ad WHO Radio in Des Moines. "He was just a nice, friendly kind of dopey guy," my mother says.
Which, come to that, is a pretty fair description of most Iowans. Don't get me wrong. I am not for a moment suggesting that Iowans are mentally deficient. They are a decidedly intelligent and sensible people who, despite their natural conservatism, have always been prepared to elect a conscientious, clear-thinking liberal in preference to some cretinous conservative (This used to drive Mr. Piper practically insane.) And Iowans, I am proud to tell you, have the highest literacy rate in the nation: 99.5 per cent of grown-ups there can read. When I say they are kind of dopey, I mean that they are trusting and amiable and open. They are a tad slow certainly — when you tell an Iowan a joke, you can see a kind of race going on between his brain and his expression — but it's not because they're incapable of high-speed mental activity, it's only that there's not much call for it. Their wits are dulled by simple, wholesome faith in God and the soil and their fellow man.
Above all, Iowans are friendly. You go into a strange diner in the south and everything goes quiet, and you realize all the other customers are looking at you as if they are sizing up the risk involved in murdering you for your wallet and leaving your body in a shallow somewhere out in the swamps. In Iowa you are the centre of attention, the most interesting thing to hit town since a tornado carried of old Frank Sprinkel and his tractor last May. Everybody you meet acts like he would gladly give you his last beer and let you sleep with his sister. Everyone is strangely serene.
The last time I was home, I went to Kresge's downtown and bought a bunch of postcards to send back to England. I bought the most ridiculous ones I could find — a sunset over a feedlot, a picture of farmers bravely grasping a moving staircase beside the caption "We rode the escalator at Merle Hay Mall!" — that sort of thing. They were so uniformly absurd that when I took them up to the check-out, I felt embarrassed by them, as if I were buying dirty magazines and hoped somehow to convey the impression that they weren't really for me. But the check-out lady regarded each of them with great interest and deliberation — just like they always do with dirty magazines, come to that.
When she looked up at me, she was almost misty-eyed. She wore butterfly eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo. "Those are real nice," she said. "You know, honey, I've bin in a lot of states and seen a lot of places, but I can tell you that this is just about the purtiest one I ever saw." She really said "purtiest." She really meant it. The poor woman was ina state of terminal hypnosis. I glanced at the cards, at to my surprise I suddenly saw what she meant. I couldn't help but agree with her. They were purty. Together, we made a little pool of silent admiration. For one giddy, careless moment, I was almost serene myself.
My father liked Iowa. He lived his whole life in the state, and indeed is even now working his way through eternity there, in Glenview Cemetery in Des Moines. But every year he became seized with a quietly maniacal urge to get out of the state and go on vacation. Every summer, without a whole lot of notice, he would load the car to groaning, hurry us into it, take off for some distant point, return to get his wallet after having driven almost to the next state, and take off again for some distant point. Every year it was the same. Every year it was awful.
The big killer was the tedium. Iowa is in the middle of the biggest plain this side of Jupiter. Climb on to a roof-top almost anywhere in the state and you are confronted with a featureless sweep of corn as far as the eye can see. It is 1,000 miles from the sea in any direction, 600 miles from the nearest mountain, 400 miles from skyscrapers and muggers and things of interest, 300 miles from people who do not habitually stick a finger in their ear and swivel it around as a preliminary to answering any question addressed to them by a stranger. To reach anywhere of even passing interest from Des Moines by car requires a journey that in other countries would be considered epic. It means days and days of unrelenting tedium in a baking steel capsule on a ribbon of highway.
In my memory, our vacations were always taken in a big blue Rambler station wagon. It was a cruddy car — my dad always bought cruddy cars, until he got to the male menopause and started buying zippy red convertibles — but it had the great virtue of space. My sister and I in the back were yards away from my parents up front, in effect in another room. We quickly discovered during illicit forays into the picnic hamper that if you stuck a bunch of Ohio Blue Tip matches into an apple or hard-boiled egg, so that it resembled a porcupine, and casually dropped it out the back window, it was like a bomb. It would explode with a small bang and a surprisingly big flash of blue flame, causing cars following behind to veer in an amusing fashion.
My dad, miles away up front, never knew what was going on or could understand why all day long cars would zoom up alongside him with the driver gesticulating furiously, before tearing off into the distance. "What was that all about," he would say to my mother in a wounded tone.
"I don't know, dear," my mother would say mildly. My mother only ever said two things. She said "I don't know, dear," And she said "Can I get you a sandwich, honey?" Occasionally on our trip sshe would volunteer other bits of information like "Should that dashboard light be glowing like that, dear?" or "I think you hit that dog/man/blind person back there, honey," but mostly she kept quiet. This was because on vacations my father was a man obsessed. His principal obsession was trying to economize. He always took us to the crummiest hotels and motor lodges — the sort of places where there were never any coat-hangers because they had all been used by abortionists. And at the roadside eating houses, you always knew, with a sense of doom, that at some point before finishing you were going to discover someone else's congealed egg yolk lurking somewhere on your plate or plugged between the tines of your fork. This, of course, meant cooties and a long, painful death.
On another continent, 4,000 miles away, I am quietly seized with the nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took a part of you with him. I want to go back to the magic places of my youth — to Mackinac Island, Estes Park, Gettysburg — and see if they are as good as I remember them. I want to hear the long, low sound of a Rock Island locomotive calling across a still night, and the clack of it receding into the distance. I want to see lightning bugs, and hear cicadas shrilling, and be inescapably immersed in that hot, crazy-making August weather that makes your underwear scoot up every crack and fissure and cling to you like latex, and drives mild-mannered men to pull out handguns in bars and light up the night with gunfire. I want to look for Ne-Hi pop and Burma Shave signs and go to a ball game and sit at a marble-topped soda fountain and drive through the kind of small towns that Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney used to live in in the movies. It's time to go home.
Reading Response Assignment:
Question 1: Reflecting on Bryson's representation of Des Moines, consider the place where you grew up. How would you describe the people you knew as a child? How are they somehow "of that place"? How would you characterize the features of the place you grew up that most give it it's character? List some ideas.
Question 2: Describe a humorous or surprising event from a vacation or day-trip (to the beach, the park, etc.) that you remember from your own childhood. You may choose to describe an experience in your own town or neighborhood if you cannot recall any particularly interesting travel experiences or your family. Using Bryson's essay as a model, use concrete details and thoughtful language to make your story vivid and interesting.
After you post your own responses, please respond thoughtfully to the posts of at least 2 classmates.