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getting away from already pretty much being away from it all
08/05/93/0800h. Press Day is a week or so before the Fair opens. I'm supposed to be at the grounds' Illinois Building by like 0900 to get Press Credentials. I imagine Credentials to be a small white card in the band of a fedora. I've never been considered Press before. My main interest in Credentials is getting into rides and stuff for free.
I'm fresh in from the East Coast to go to the Illinois State Fair for a swanky East-Coast magazine. Why exactly a swanky East-Coast magazine is interested in the Illinois State Fair remains unclear to me. I suspect that every so often editors at these magazines slap their foreheads and remember that about 90% of the United States lies between the Coasts and figure they'll engage somebody to do pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heartlandish. I think they decided to engage me for this one because I actually grew up around here, just a couple hours' drive from downstate Springfield. I never did go to the State Fair, though, growing up—I pretty much topped out at the County Fair level.
In August it takes hours for the dawn fog to burn off. The air's like wet wool. 0800h. is too early to justify the car's AC. I'm on I-55 going S/SW. The sun's a blotch in a sky that isn't so much cloudy as opaque. The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right to the sky's hem. The August corn's as tall as a tall man. Illinois corn is now knee-high by about the 4th of May, what with all the advances in fertilizers and herbicides. Locusts chirr in every field, a brassy electric sound that Dopplers oddly in the speeding car. Corn, corn, soybeans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles an outpost way off on a reach in the distance—house, tree w/ tire-swing, barn, satellite dish. Grain silos are the only real skyline. The Interstate is dull and pale. The occasional other cars all look ghostly, their drivers' faces humidity-stunned. A fog hangs just over the fields like the land's mind or something. The temperature's over 80 and already climbing with the sun. It'll be 90+ by l000h., you can tell: there's already that tightening quality to the air, like it's drawing itself in for a long siege.
Credentials 0900h., Welcome & Briefing 0915h., Press Tour on Special Tram 0945h.
I grew up in rural Illinois but haven't been back for a long time and can't say I've missed it—the yeasty heat, the lush desolation of limitless corn, the flatness.
But it's like bike-riding, in a way. The native body readjusts automatically to the flatness, and as your calibration gets finer, driving, you can start to notice that the dead-level flatness is only apparent. There are unevennesses, ups and downs, slight but rhythmic. Straight-shot I-55 will start, ever so slightly, to rise, maybe 5° over a mile, then go just as gentle back down, and then you see an overpass bridge ahead, over a river—the Salt Fork, the Sangamon. The rivers are swollen, but nothing like out around St. Louis. These gentle rises and then dips down to rivers are glacial moraines, edges of the old ice that shaved the Midwest level. The middling rivers have their origin in glacial runoff. The whole drive is a gentle sine wave like this, but it's like sea-legs: if you haven't spent years here you'll never feel it. To people from the Coasts, rural IL's topography's a nightmare, something to hunker down and speed through—the sky opaque, the dull crop-green constant, the land flat and dull and endless, a monotone for the eyes. For natives it's different. For me, at least, it got creepy. By the time I left for college the area no longer seemed dull so much as empty, lonely. Middle-of-the-ocean lonely. You can go weeks without seeing a neighbor. It gets to you.
08/05/0900h. But so it's still a week before the Fair, and there's something surreal about the emptiness of parking facilities so huge and complex that they have their own map. The parts of the Fairgrounds that I can see, pulling in, are half permanent structures and half tents and displays in various stages of erection, giving the whole thing the look of somebody half-dressed for a really important date.
08/05/0905h. The man processing Press Credentials is bland and pale and has a mustache and a short-sleeve knit shirt. In line before me are newshounds from Today's Agriculture, the Decatur Herald & Review, Illinois Crafts Newsletter, 4-H News, and Livestock Weekly. Press Credentials turn out to be just a laminated mugshot with a gator-clip for your pocket; not a fedora in the house. Two older ladies from a local horticulture organ behind me engage me in shoptalk. One of these ladies describes herself as the Unofficial Historian of the Illinois State Fair: she goes around giving slide shows on the Fair at nursing homes and Rotary lunches. She begins to emit historical data at a great rate—the Fair started in 1853; there was a Fair every year during the Civil War but not during WWII, plus no Fair in 1893 for some reason; the Governor has failed to cut the ribbon personally on Opening Day only twice; etc. It occurs to me I probably ought to have brought a notebook. I also notice I'm the only person in the room in a T-shirt. It's a fluorescent-lit cafeteria in something called the Illinois Building Senior Center, uncooled. All the local TV crews have their equipment spread out on tables and are lounging against walls talking about the apocalyptic 1993 floods to the immediate west, which floods are ongoing. They all have mustaches and short-sleeve knit shirts. In fact the only other males in the room without mustaches and golf-shirts are the local TV reporters, four of them, all in Eurocut suits. They are sleek, sweatless, deeply blue-eyed. They stand together up by the dais. The dais has a podium and a flag and a banner with GIVE US A WHIRL! on it, which I deduce is probably this year's Fair's Theme, sort of the way senior proms have a Theme. There's a compelling frictionlessness about the local TV reporters, all of whom have short blond hair and vaguely orange makeup. A vividness. I keep feeling a queer urge to vote for them for something.
The older ladies behind me tell me they've bet I'm here to cover either the auto racing or the pop music. They don't mean it unkindly. I tell them why I'm here, mentioning the magazine's name. They turn toward each other, faces alight. One (not the Historian) actually claps her hands to her cheeks.
"Love the recipes," she says.
"Adore the recipes," the Unofficial Historian says.
And I'm sort of impelled over to a table of all post-45 females, am introduced as on assignment from Harper's magazine, and everyone looks at one another with star-struck awe and concurs that the recipes really are first-rate, top-hole, the living end. One seminal recipe involving Amaretto and something called "Baker's chocolate" is being recalled and discussed when a loudspeaker's feedback brings the Fair's official Press Welcome & Briefing to order.
The Briefing is dull. We are less addressed than rhetorically bludgeoned by Fair personnel, product spokespeople, and middle-management State politicos. The words excited, proud, and opportunity are used a total of 76 times before I get distracted off the count. I've suddenly figured out that all the older ladies I'm at the table with have confused Harper's with Harper's Bazaar. They think I'm some sort of food writer or recipe scout, here to maybe vault some of the Midwestern food competition winners into the homemaker's big time. Ms. Illinois State Fair, tiara bolted to the tallest coiffure I've ever seen (bun atop bun, multiple layers, a veritable wedding cake of hair), is proudly excited to have the opportunity to present two corporate guys, dead-eyed and sweating freely in suits, who in turn report the excited pride of McDonald's and Wal-Mart at having the opportunity to be this year's Fair's major corporate sponsors. It occurs to me that if I allow the Harper's-Bazaar-food-scout misunderstanding to persist and circulate I can eventually show up at the Dessert Competition tents with my Press Credentials and they'll feed me free prize-winning desserts until I have to be carried off on a gurney. Older ladies in the Midwest can bake.
08/05/0950h. Under way at 4 mph on the Press Tour, on a kind of flatboat with wheels and a lengthwise bench so ridiculously high that everybody's feet dangle. The tractor pulling us has signs that say ETHANOL and AGRIPOWERED. I'm particularly keen to see the carnies setting up rides in the Fairgrounds' "Happy Hollow," but we head first to the corporate and political tents. Most every tent is still setting up. Workmen crawl over structural frames. We wave at them; they wave back; it's absurd: we're only going 4 mph. One tent says CORN: TOUCHING OUR LIVES EVERY DAY. There are massive many-hued tents courtesy of McDonald's, Miller Genuine Draft, Osco, Morton Commercial Structures Corp., the Land of Lincoln Soybean Association (LOOK WHERE SOYBEANS GO! on a half-up display), Pekin Energy Corp. (PROUD OF OUR SOPHISTICATED COMPUTER-CONTROLLED PROCESSING TECHNOLOGY), Illinois Pork Producers, and the John Birch Society (we'll be checking out that tent for sure). Two tents that say REPUBLICAN and DEMOCRAT. Other smaller tents for various Illinois officeholders. It's well up in the 90s and the sky is the color of old jeans. Over a system of crests to Farm Expo—twelve acres of wicked-looking needle-teethed harrows, tractors, harvesters and seeders—and then Conservation World, 22 acres I never do get straight on the conserving purpose of.
- "The Best Mind of His Generation"—A.O. Scott, New York Times
- "A prose magician, Mr. Wallace was capable of writing...about subjects from tennis to politics to lobsters, from the horrors of drug withdrawal to the small terrors of life aboard a luxury cruise ship, with humor and fervor and verve. At his best he could write funny, write sad, write sardonic and write serious. He could map the infinite and infinitesimal, the mythic and mundane. He could conjure up an absurd future...while conveying the inroads the absurd has already made in a country where old television shows are a national touchstone and asinine advertisements wallpaper our lives."—Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
- "One of the most influential writers of his generation."—Timothy Williams, New York Times
- "A novelist with the industrial-strength intellectual chops to theorize even our resolutely anti-intellectual age....Wallace's ear for dialogue was unmatched in contemporary fiction."—Lev Grossman, Time
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown and Company