Review of South of the Northeast Kingdom
Part memoir, part local color, the book covers the forty years Mamet has lived in Vermont. South of the Northeast Kingdom will remind the reader once again of Mamet’s versatility as a writer.
South of the Northeast Kingdom.
Washington, DC: National Geographic. 2002.
152 pp. Cloth $20.00.
The National Geographic Society commissioned David Mamet to write a book about Vermont as part of its Literary Travel Series, published in 2002, South of the Northeast Kingdom joins a distinguished list of books by authors such as W.S. Merwin and Louise Erdrich (upcoming). Part memoir, part local color, the book covers the forty years Mamet has lived in Vermont. South of the Northeast Kingdom will remind the reader once again of Mamet’s versatility as a writer. It is remarkable how the same mind can serve up such intense drama as Glengarry Glen Ross, then go on to offer works of a completely different genre, creative non-fiction such as The Cabin and Writing in Restaurants , South of the Northeast Kingdom is a meditative poem in prose form. A number of the chapters open with an artifact of some kind—a woodstove, a 1938 clothing catalogue—that Mamet uses to spin off a range of observations, anecdotes, and opinions about everything from historical facts to geography to local eccentrics. That Mamet adores Vermont and its people comes across in the sympathetic way he handles the subject matter. There are no Richard Romas in this book. Mamet is careful, though, to avoid limiting South of the Northeast Kingdom to simply regional study. Well aware of the literary history of regionalism, early in the book Mamet discusses the regionalists, Edward Eggleston (Indiana) and Robert Frost, and the project of writing a book about a particular area. How much can character be traced to geography or place? And what is the relation of regional character to national character (if there are such things)? (A thread running through the book is commentary about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.) How does a world of hatchets fit into a world of computers?
Interestingly, Mamet succeeds in offering a portrait of Vermont(ers) by coming at the questions obliquely A regional character does emerge (I think), but through the voices and actions of the players. Mamet is, of course, not a native Vermonter. As such, he takes an outsider’s perspective. Like many city-born and bred people, Mamet is fascinated by the rural qualities of a place like Vermont. Yet he is also well aware of the problems such a fascination generates. The communities of writers and artisans as well as wealthy summer folk that Vermont has attracted are irrevocably altering its rural character. With the proximity of Montreal and Boston, Vermont is slowly suburbanizing. Mamet admits that he is part of the problem: “I am privileged to have lived there. Neither was I a neutral. My presence, my understanding of the area as picturesque and rare qualifies me as a despoiler” (98-99). South of the Northeast Kingdom is about the old Vermont that is rapidly disappearing. It is about the past without being nostalgic, and about the present at the moment of being lost to the past.
The narrative style of South of the Northeast Kingdom deserves a few remarks of its own. The book is constructed as a series of short chapters, interspersed throughout with black and white photographs, many of which are Mamet’s own work. Each chapter is a montage of short scenes (not surprising in a playwright!). Of course, Mamet has experimented with a fragmented writing style previously, most notably in W ilson. But the effect here is not jarring. Reading South of the Northeast Kingdom is like looking through a series of snapshots or a family photo album. Apart from being a wonderful book for anyone interested in David Mamet, Vermont. or travel literature, I would recommend this book for courses on contemporary regional writing. South of the Northeast Kingdom is 152 pages long, has thirty-three black and white photographs, and a map of Vermont.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, CARBONDALE