PsychoGeography #18: Sloppy coupes and monster malls in the American Midwest

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In Iowa the land is flat and the people are fat. Like petrol-driven bowling balls they roll across the plains, occasionally slotting into the groove of a roadway, then rattling to a halt at fast food joints where they are served with paper cups of 7-Up or Coke the size of oil drums, haystack hamburgers, and stooks of fries. In Iowa the land is flat, and divided into a crinkly grid of farms. The towns have names derived from just about every other conceivable land - Lisbon, Oxford, Bangor, Lourdes, Fredonia - mixed together with curiously modern coinages - Mechanicsville, Urbandale - so that the state's identity is an invented palimpsest, worked up out of elsewhere. In Iowa it's fall, and the tawny stands of brush along the river beds fade to grey, while the yawning maw of the sky cries out for geese to gobble and duck to crunch.

In Iowa the land is flat and the people are fat. Like petrol-driven bowling balls they roll across the plains, occasionally slotting into the groove of a roadway, then rattling to a halt at fast food joints where they are served with paper cups of 7-Up or Coke the size of oil drums, haystack hamburgers, and stooks of fries. In Iowa the land is flat, and divided into a crinkly grid of farms. The towns have names derived from just about every other conceivable land - Lisbon, Oxford, Bangor, Lourdes, Fredonia - mixed together with curiously modern coinages - Mechanicsville, Urbandale - so that the state's identity is an invented palimpsest, worked up out of elsewhere. In Iowa it's fall, and the tawny stands of brush along the river beds fade to grey, while the yawning maw of the sky cries out for geese to gobble and duck to crunch.

The great American stand-up Steven Wright has a gag: "Last year I bought a map of the USA, actual size. This year for my vacation, I folded it." I think he was thinking of the Midwest when he came up with this.

At Cedar Rapids Airport the boy and I rent my usual sloppy General Motors coupe. "Make it as sloppy as possible," I tell the girl at the Alamo desk. "I want that transmission to feel like a slack rubber band, and the suspension to make the car handle like a manatee wallowing in the Everglades." She looks at me askance, which is a difficult thing to do if you're an Iowan, what with fat eyeballs an' all. "We've a day to kill," I continue. "What is there worth seeing in this neck of the woods?" To the girl's credit she rises to the occasion: "I can recommend the Amana Colonies, sir. They're real inneresting ..." ("Real inneresting" to my ear sounds like a state of Buddhist contentment) "... there's the houses where they lived - it was a religious community one time - and there's good stuff to eat."

Eat, yeah, I know your game. Still, it sounds good to me, I'd drive miles to see the remains of any old godforsaken religious community so long as there's a gift shop. But the boy is tugging at my sleeve: "Dad, don't forget." "Oh yes," I turn back. "My boy here wants to visit a nice big mall." "The biggest mall hereabouts is down at Coralville, sir, right on Route 380. You just head right on from the Amana Colonies." "Well, we'll do that then." "You have a nice day, sir."

The coupe is as sloppy as a blancmange and I smear it along the road past presperous farms with silvery grain silos and foursquare red barns. Occasionally we pass a mirror-shiny tanker and I see the coupe, me and the boy reflected in its fat belly. The Amana Colonies are nothing much to look at: a few clapboard houses full of Germanic heirlooms, a handful of barns scattered with bits of old farming equipment. The Amana were, it transpires, socialistic and pious. They were resistant to modernity, but not quite resistant enough - so the combine harvester of Progress crushed them flat and rolled right over them.

In this neck of the woods you have to be truly outlandish to survive as a religious sect. You have to be like the Amish and reject even the button. The Amish are so out there that the word is they're heavily stuck into the drugs trade in Des Moines. Not that they use the stuff themselves you unnerstand, it's just that what with farm prices falling, and the "English" so hungry for the stuff, it has to be one of God's ways of providing for the Chosen.

We eat in the restaurant at Amana. It looks like the sort of joint that would be made out of gingerbread in a Grimm Bros production, and the food is all sugar and fat to match this. The boy can't handle it - and who can blame him - he longs only for Coralville and the promised mall. Back in the coupe we noodle through Homestead and Oxford, then pull up in the humongous car park of the retail behemoth.

The mall was worth the journey. It's so big it has a multiplex, an ice rink, numerous cafés and retail outlets arrayed along what seems like half a kilometre of temperature-controlled atrium. But most alluring of all is the gun store. This is what the boy really wanted to see: hundreds of rifles, hand guns, semi-automatic weapons, and all the ammunition to go with them. For a Brit boy it's simply inconceivable that this much firepower can be available in what to all intents and purposes looks like suburbia.

I call his attention to the fact that we're out in the sticks really, and that behind every one of them crouches a proud American who is crazy for the hunt. I point out to him the flotillas of decoy ducks and geese, the foldaway boats, the self-assembling hides, but he isn't fooled for a second. He's seen those great big, lumbering Iowans, who are themselves like decoy humans: bigger than life-size so as to confuse enemies; fool them into misjudging their descent, so that when they try and join them, they crash instead into the iron-hard ground.

Comments