Reading Jonathan Yardley, I always feel like a rubber band stretched tight between all the things I passionately agree with him about and all the things I fervently disagree with him about. "States of Mind" offers much of both.
Mr. Yardley, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for criticism, is a book critic and columnist for the Washington Post and author of several finely wrought volumes of biography and criticism. By turns gruntled and disgruntled, this resident of Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood has produced here a less studied, fairly beguiling book -- if you know the place.
Bemusedly touring the area's seven states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia) and the District of Columbia -- to all of which he has personal connections -- Mr. Yardley visits, among other places, the big cities, the Outer Banks, favorite small towns, Atlantic City and his own family-founded Yardley, Pa. He also checks out West Virginia's Greenbrier resort (thumbs up) and Virginia's Homestead Inn (thumbs down), Baltimore's sports stadiums and producers of the nearest thing to Mid-Atlantic "regional cuisine," potato chips and beer.
Characteristically, and with good old-fashioned, honed prose, he turns the matter into his own identity problem: Yankees, Southerners, Westerners and Midwesterners all have their regional roots and sectional sensibilities, but "a true person of the Mid-Atlantic" is, like the place, a "middling sort." "Which makes me a . . . what? A Middleman? A Middler?
A Mid-Atlanticker? A Midsectionite? It's a problem, isn't it?"
Well, as problems go, it's mainly useful to a beleaguered editor looking for a new slant on a local travel article. Still, Mr. Yardley turns it into the mild challenge of tracing his own basic nature, manfully sacrificing his yuppie Volvo for a ($25,000) Ford Taurus SHO, out of concern for "how people would feel about it out there in the Mid-Atlantic hinterlands," and hopefully heading north on Interstate 95 toward Philadelphia, "with a mighty roar under the hood."
Unfortunately (the bad part first) the mighty roar never stops under the hood as Mr. Yardley makes his excessively self-referential way around the Mid-Atlantic. He feels that his "nature, reticent and shy . . . an observer and critic rather than participant and reporter," justifies mostly discarding the time-honored travel-book technique of getting to know the natives, and instead viewing the place through his own extensive memories and reactions. What's more, all too often, in spite of disclaimers, he seems more interested in ratifying his opinions than reconsidering them.
Perhaps I'm taking it too personally myself. As much a child of theMid-Atlantic as Mr. Yardley himself, I find his contemptuous dismissal of "Historic Williamsburg" knee-jerk and petulant. (He's right about the Pottery Factory, though.)
I lived eight of the best years of my life in Gettysburg, which he childishly refuses to look at ("nothing puts me to sleep faster than a battlefield"). I'm not so upset that the western mountains get shortchanged (although a lot less of the stubbornly defended "road talk" -- "I left 13 and picked up 50" -- could have made room for more interesting stuff) because he does briefly admire the countryside around Cumberland. And, to answer his question, yes, many of us who live here do "have a sense of gratitude for what [we] have been given." But why not stop to ask?
On the other hand, Mr. Yardley frequently uncovers the genuine and exposes the crass, by both our definitions. Despite his too Menckenesque distaste for certain people and things in the aggregate (the middle class and suburbs, for instance), he often likes them just fine in the particular. His faith in big cities and the Baltimore Orioles consciously but appealingly balances a carefully nurtured grouchiness.
In the end, Mr. Yardley finds that the Mid-Atlantic is home. No surprises there -- he implied that at the start. As usual, he has confirmed his own prejudices. However, since they are, with important exceptions, mine, too, I might as well stop using that rubber band as a slingshot and recommend this book to all Mid-Atlanticnics. (He never did settle the nomenclature problem.) Others need not bother.
Title: "States of Mind: A Personal Journey Through the Mid-Atlantic."
Author: Jonathan Yardley.
Length, price: 289 pages, $23.