Notes from No Man's Land

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Like most people, Eula Biss thinks of telephone poles as physical markers of progress, signs of modern technology that have brought people closer together. But in her essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” the author also notes that the telephone pole was a social chisel, an instrument of mindless cruelty that drove people apart: In the South, they were sometimes used as lynching posts. Throughout Notes from No Man’s Land, a new collection of 13 essays in which Biss recounts her experiences among the disparate peoples of New York, California and the Midwest, the author often follows this pattern, invoking an everyday experience and then revealing its troubling history.

In most of the essays this technique pays off, as Biss’s examination of America’s complicated racial heritage offers penetrating insight. In “Back to Buxton,” she contrasts the supposedly progressive university in Iowa City, where white and black students rarely cross paths, with the early-20th-century hamlet of Buxton, a small, Jim Crow--era town that functioned, briefly, as a desegregated utopia.

Sometimes Biss’s anecdotal style wanders too far in the direction of self-flagellation: In “Letter to Mexico,” she essentially apologizes to an entire country for being an ugly American; at another point, the author, who’s white, makes too much of her relationship with a black cousin. Still, despite mawkish hiccups, Biss’s ruminations never totally derail. “Is this Kansas?,” in particular, raises some troubling questions about the way the young are trained to view tragedies like Katrina—often through the harsh lens of racial stereotypes. Telephone poles may be on their way out, but at moments like these, Biss still encourages us to reach out and connect.—Drew Toal

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By Eula Biss. Graywolf, $15 paperback.