Ecco £16.99 (pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

In the depths of the last great depression Washington came to the assistance of struggling authors, funding the Federal Writers Project. Its greatest legacy was the 500-page-a-volume, 50 volumes, state by state, WPA guide to America. Almost 80 years later and here we are again. A new democratic President faces a global economic meltdown and intractable security problems. This time around we have a smaller, leaner literary response to this American moment; just one volume, a private sector publisher and 50 writers on the 50 states. But it is a bold and ambitious response by editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.

I started, because it seemed to make sense, at the beginning of the alphabet with George Packer's family memoir of Alabama. To my pleasure I discovered the lost history of the state's liberalism and populism, alongside Packer's own faltering but beautifully rendered education in the personal politics of race.

The piece sets the tone for almost the whole book – a mix of memoir that holds you and history you didn't know, an open and self-reflective attitude to race and fantastically good writing.

Alaska was calling next, and I would get to Paul Greenberg's account of the salmon industry amongst the Inuit, but for then it was a journey too far and I reverted to the geography of America I have come to know best – the geography of the presidential election. So it was straight to the big four. Jonathan Franzen's interview with New York State herself, by way of her PA, lawyers and geologists, was wry and cutting and wistful. California got the almost hallucinatory epic treatment from William T. Voleman.

Joshua Ferris told a sweet tale of growing up amongst the human debris that washed dishes in Florida diners. Cristina Henriquez gently probes the Texan stereotype to find its deep Latino connections. The tone and technique of this collection are brilliantly varied. Swinging through states solid for Obama there were smartly observed graphics from Joe Sacco on rainy Oregon and Alison Bechtel on kooky Vermont. Dave Eggers playfully, teasingly, makes the case for Illinois as the centre with the swing and bravado of old-time Midwestern boosterists. Phillip Connors quietly but devastatingly demolishes the myths of "Minnesota Nice" while Antony Bourdain serves up his usual big slice of unabashed life in suburban New Jersey; and all point to the range of perspectives that the editors found – those who stayed, those who left, those who are drawn back, and those that never going back.

In the current spirit of bipartisanship, the blue states have got no monopoly on good writing. Joshua Clarke's Louisiana story is poignant and scary and finds him searching for souls with real life Ghostbusters in the flooded lower ninth of New Orleans where many generations of spirits have been dislodged from the swamp. Ken Brockemeir's tale of the bumper sticker war in Arkansas was just hilarious.

Does anything consistent emerge from this raging cacophony of voices? In part what one would expect: that America is both vast and unbelievably diverse in every way and as the pieces by a Ghanaian on Michigan, a Chinese American on Georgia and on Bosnians in Missouri show – the mix isn't finished yet. Yet perhaps the most persistent image in the collection is the spectre of a homogenised landscape, the endless suburbs, strip developments and Wal-Marts and box stores. More darkly, one finds in many pieces, the recognition that corporate America is as rapacious in tearing up the domestic environment as it is the rest of the world; nowhere clearer than in than Jayne Anne Phillips mournful essay on West Virginia where the mining industry is steadily blasting the top of every last mountain in pursuit of coal.

At a micro level the same raging process of economic transformation that reaches every corner of this country is the background to Charles Bock's bitter sweet recollections of growing up Jewish in Nevada, where his folks ran a pawn shop in the shadow of the Golden Nugget in the old downtown, a shadow that eventually killed it. And there's no escape: Benjamin Kunkel's Colorado ends with the mournful reflection that the combination of romantic individualism and unlimited mobility of life in the mountains is utterly unsustainable.

If the new American administration is serious about its cultural diplomacy and it use of soft power, it might want to let the rest of the world in on what America looks like from the inside. From the pages of this book it looks funnier, quirkier, smarter, more fragile but more thoughtful and generous-hearted than most of the world has imagined it recently. The state department could do a lot worse than issue every embassy with a box or two of State to State.

David Goldblatt's history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea