SARAH VOWELL reading at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Tuesday (October 22), 7 pm. Free. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
When I hear Americans talking about the beauty of the Constitution and the glory of the Lincoln Memorial, I can't believe they're serious. But whip-smart storyteller, radio commentator and frequent David Letterman guest Sarah Vowell means it when she celebrates U.S.-style democracy and freedom.
Rapidly gaining notoriety as one of the freshest voices of her generation, she hates it when people mess with those values. She's the kind of patriot who just had to cart herself down to Washington for George W.'s inauguration to protest. And she wept after he took the oath of office as she heard the strains of her national anthem, a song she believes was deeply demeaned by the botched election and the Florida chad scandal.
She's not jingoistic -- she's patriotic in the truest sense, fiercely loyal to the art of dissent. She'll quote Lincoln and Jefferson up the wazoo, yet she's an avowed atheist. You won't hear the words "God bless America" coming out of her mouth.
"American values are my religion," she says pointedly. Thing is, she doesn't sound scary when she talks that way.
"I was hard-wired to be a religious person -- I was brought up Pentecostal in the sticks of Oklahoma -- and so I still have a kind of religious passion.
"Freedom is written into the Bill Of Rights. Sometimes there is something in those musty old documents. The Old Testament has some decent things to say. For example, I still stand by the Ten Commandments."
You can hear a bit of the flattened-out Oklahoma speech pattern in her voice, but only a trace. She moved as a teenager to Montana and lived in Chicago before taking herself to New York City, where she's phoning from now. She's nervous about the interview, relieved it's not a question-and-answer because, she says, she can't really express herself fully in conversation.
"I'm funnier than this," she deadpans.
She's right -- Letterman likes her for a reason. Her new book, The Partly Cloudy Patriot (see review, this page), collects laugh-out-loud personal stories that touch on her feelings about American traditions.
There's always a twist. In The First Thanksgiving, she recounts her debut as family host in New York for Thanksgiving dinner and how everyone wouldn't stop talking about how they couldn't wait to leave.
In the title story, just as she's getting a glow on for Independence Day, she sees that the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, with the help of a real estate agent, have stabbed small American flags onto her and her neighbours' lawns. She promptly phones up the sponsors and blasts them: "The whole point of that goddamn flag," she hollers, "is that people don't stick flags into my yard without asking me."
With these themes taking centre stage, you might wonder why she's bothering to come here to the Rivoli (Tuesday, October 22) to flog the new book. But her relationship with Canada differs hugely from most Americans'. For one thing, she has one. She's visited points west many times, developed her passion for radio by listening to the CBC while she lived in Chicago, and her piece Cowboys Vs. Mounties shows a rare respect for what makes Canada worth knowing about.
"I'm obsessed with Canada," she says. "It started with listening to the CBC. That was in the mid-80s during that horrible time when the U.S. was in the golden age of talk radio of the hateful kind. One of the things I loved about the CBC was that it always wanted to get all of Canada involved in a discussion about what Canadian identity was about. It's only since September 11 that you hear a similar discussion about the U.S. on American radio."
Vowell's being slightly self-effacing here. Public Radio International's This American Life series, to which she has contributed throughout its seven-year history, has always loved to talk about what makes America what it is. And, get this, she's a Yank who's left the country. She studied in Holland and went to Paris three times before she ever went to New York. How un-American is that?
"I don't think there's anything wrong with never leaving the country if you can't afford it," she says pointedly. But she admits that the fact that her current president had been outside North America only three times before becoming president is a bit of a problem. "And one of those trips was to visit his president father in China."
You know her eyes are rolling as she says that.
She hasn't any of the baggage that many cultural commentators have. You never get the feeling that she's dropping her pearls to the masses from a great height. On the topic of the U.S. being on the brink of war, she admits that she's hopelessly conflicted. That may not sit well with hard-liners comfortable with our peacenik predispositions, but there's something refreshing about a social critic who has the nerve to say "I'm not sure."
She gives off no whiff of privilege or entitlement. You do get a strong sense of outrage at injustice; an anti-racist stance permeates her work, and she understands the experience of the American poor.
"I had an old-fashioned childhood. I listened to the Grand Ole Opry -- I wasn't allowed to listen to rock and roll, except to Elvis, because he was Pentecostal. There's not a nice way to say "poor white," but I know what it means to pick cotton for a living.
"At age 32, I'm also the oldest living spinster in my entire family history, and I achieved that title at the age of 24 when my sister married. So I can't believe that I get to live in New York and make a living and write about things I care about. I do feel like I'm living an American dream."
As someone who lives in lower Manhattan near Ground Zero, she's amazed by her life, but since September 11 she's wary.
"Any time a plane flies overhead, everybody stops and waits until it passes by the Empire State building. And I have a new appreciation for dumb American culture. Like, it's great to be watching Fear Factor and see this guy completely covered in bees or something. I'm happy as long as no one's breaking into those shows with some horrible piece of information.
"You know what they say. No news is good news."email@example.com