In the twenty-first century, it's difficult to imagine any element of American life that remains untouched by popular culture, let alone an entire community existing outside the empire of pop. Read more...
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In the twenty-first century, it's difficult to imagine any element of American life that remains untouched by popular culture, let alone an entire community existing outside the empire of pop. But Karen Valby discovered the tiny town of Utopia tucked away in the Texas Hill Country. There are no movie theaters for sixty miles in any direction, no book or music stores. But cable television and the Internet have recently thrown wide the doors of Utopia.
Valby follows the lives of four Utopians--Ralph, the retired owner of the general store; Kathy, the waitress who waits in terror for three of her boys to return from war; Colter, the son of a cowboy with the soul of a hipster; and Kelli, an aspiring rock star and one of the only black people in town--as they reckon, on an intensely human scale, with war and race, class and culture, and the way time's passage can change the ground beneath our feet.
Utopia is the kind of place we still think of as the "real America," a place of cowboys and farmers and high-school sweethearts who stay together till they die. But its dramatic stories show us what happens when the old tensions of small-town life confront a new reality: that no town, no matter how small and isolated, can escape the liberating and disruptive forces of the larger world.
Welcome to Utopia""is a moving elegy for a proud American way of life and a celebration of our relentless impulse toward rebirth.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 43.
- Review Date: 2010-03-08
- Reviewer: Staff
Valby, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, profiles Utopia, Tex., in a lackluster account of life in contemporary smalltown America. The author discovered Utopia in 2006 and, hoping “to get past the mythology of the small town and understand it as a real place where actual people live,” repeatedly returned to the unincorporated ranching community in the scenic Texas Hill Country for the next two years. The Census counts 241 Utopians, and while many of them appear in Valby's narrative, she focuses on four to tell her story: Ralph Boyce, “the quintessential old-timer” and the dean of the early-morning coffee drinkers at the General Store; Kathy Wiekamp, a popular waitress and mother of four boys; Colter Padgett, “the town misfit”; and Kelli Rhodes, the only black student at Utopia School. While the four are a diverse lot, in Valby's hands, they only sporadically rise above the level of stereotype and fall short of demythologizing small towns. The author also provides too little context for her observations, and her conclusions—e.g., Utopians are provincial; racism still exists in rural Texas; and small towns see rapid change as a threat—are neither surprising nor original. (June)
A rich portrait of small-town America
When Entertainment Weekly senior editor Karen Valby was assigned to find a place in America untouched by popular culture, she landed in Utopia, a tiny and isolated farming town in Texas. The biggest event of the year for residents of Utopia (pop. 1,000) is the Fall Festival parade, when carefully decorated floats drive down Main Street, then make a U-turn and drive back down the other way.
But things are changing fast, even in this town where the retired “coffee drinkers” still gather every morning at the general store to provide slightly off-color running commentary on all the happenings in town. Families who have lived there for generations are moving away or dying out, and newcomers are bringing foreign values and cultures into the community. The young adults of this sometimes bleak town—who, through blogs and social media, have a glimpse of the bigger world that many of their parents never had—yearn for something more. “I just wish something would ever happen in this town,” says high school senior Kelli, the only African-American girl in her class and a promising student who plans to move to Austin as soon as she graduates. “I just feel like I’m pushing through a hot fog.”
Valby’s rich portrait of several local residents is incredibly appealing for its honest look at the struggles of modern families in small-town America. There’s Kathy, the loud, profane mother of four rambunctious boys, who talks about what it’s like to have three sons serve in Iraq and only two come home. There’s 22-year-old Colter, an outcast who works on a local road construction crew while he figures out how to avoid becoming a sun-baked rancher like his father.
But it’s Ralph, one of the coffee drinkers, who is the true heart and wisdom of Welcome to Utopia. Former owner of the general store, he is a gruff, good-hearted man who speaks his mind. One wishes Valby could have devoted even more pages to his less-than-politically-correct, but razor-sharp perspective: “ ‘People always say nothing changes. . . . Everything changes. You just don’t always know it when it’s happening.’ ”