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Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World
Sarah Vowell
London: Hamish Hamilton / Penguin, 2002.
£10.99, 216 pages, ISBN 0-241-14163-X.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

I first came across Sarah Vowell in the webpages of Salon; reading her piece on Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) I laughed uncontrollably. It was entitled “The Drapes of Wrath: Is Interior Home Design Responsible for the Downfall of American Masculinity?” and contained lines like: “You know Pitt plays a real man because his hair's messed up and he lives in what Norton's character calls ‘a dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town’.”

Vowell also writes for Request, GQ, Spin, and The Village Voice. She is a contributing editor to This American Life on Public Radio International. She is the acclaimed author of Radio On: A Listener’s Diary (St. Martin’s Press, 1998), which is enjoyable even if you do not spend your entire days as she did listening to American radio. Her new book of essays, Partly Cloudy Patriot, will be released in the States in September 2002.

This collection of essays on American history and pop culture—Americana in the best sense of the word—showcases her talent as a comic writer, even though some passages are a bit underwritten, as they were originally broadcast on the radio. Principally autobiographical, most of them function as short stories, hence the title. Vowell is particularly good when she writes about growing up in Oklahoma before moving to Montana, about her NRA gunsmith dad for example (“About the only thing my father and I agree on is the Constitution, though I’m partial to the First Amendment, while he’s always favored the Second.”). My favorite piece is “The End is Near, Nearer, Nearest”. At her fundamentalist church, Braggs Pentecostal Holiness, the sermons often dealt with the Book of Revelation. At the age of six, Vowell knew she was a sinner and “would never be good enough to get into Heaven”. At the age of eight she was baptized “in a water moccasin-infected lake”. If she did mend her ways and passed the pearly gates, though, she knew what she would do: she would spend eternity grilling God, seeing that early in the day she had serious misgivings about the Creation. “This was a god who told Abraham to knife his boy Isaac and then at the last minute […] God tells Abraham that He’s just kidding […]. This was a god who saw to it that his own son had his hands and feet nailed onto pieces of wood.” So she would say to him,: “ Let me get this straight […], it’s your position that every person ever born has to suffer because Eve couldn’t resist a healthy between-meals snack?” God had a plan, she concludes, “a cruel, kooky, murderous horror movie of a plan for sure, but a plan nonetheless”.

As a teenager, Vowell was a seen as a nerd, or a downright weirdo. Anyone who has ever seen one of those innumerable jocks v. nerds or cools v. nerds teen movies will know what I am referring to. Smalltown America is like that. She read books, for God’s sake, and listened to “alternative music”! She writes very amusingly about anti-nuke activities, and about her early influences, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs…

I liked “These Little Town Blues” and the description of Sinatra’s hometown, although I was shocked beyond words by her use of the word “punk” in that essay. Quite simply, she has no idea what punk is, or was, I should say. And talking about punk, “American Goth” takes her to Roderick’s Chamber in San Francisco, a goth club. Vowel has been called—as she reminds us herself—a curmudgeon by Bitch magazine; but she looks like someone people always want to call “hon”, and is cursed with a “sweetie-pie face”. So she undergoes a complete makeover at the hands of Mary Queen of Hurts before she goes clubbing. She does not seem to care much about the post-punk nature of goth, and hastily reduces it to a series of poses, I regret to say. Still, there are some good lines in there, such as: “Goths, for those unfamiliar with this particular subculture, are the pale-faced, black-clad, vampiric types, with forlorn stares framed by raccoon eye makeup.” And she does concede: “If the funny T-shirt slogans and crisp khaki pants of the average American tell the lie that everything’s going to be okay, the black lace scarves and ghoulish capes of goth tell the truth—that you suffer, then you die.”

In the title piece, “Take the Cannoli”, she takes on The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), and reminisces about a trip to Sicily, when she finally tasted cannoli—having been so impressed by Clemenza’s line (“His instruction to his partner in crime is an entire moral manifesto in six little words: ‘Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.’”)—and found that it was sweeter and denser than she had thought, with chocolate and orange in the filling. In “Vindictively American”, she recalls a stay in the Netherlands, watching the Rodney King aftermath on TV and feeling terrible. She is not ashamed to confess that she fell asleep that day listening to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, a Beach Boys song, “about twenty-nine times”. Not being very fond of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, she had left the States during the Gulf War, wanting to do research on the paintings of Piet Mondrian; she “wanted out of the huge Jackson Pollock canvas that is the U.S.A., vast, murky, splotched, and slapped together by a drunk”. But eventually she missed home, she missed “death and Elvis and California and catastrophe”. Vowell has no illusions whatsoever about her country, but she loves it: “I wanted Jackson Pollock. And I wanted to go home. I got on my bike and rode to McDonald’s and read [Don DeLillo’s White Noise] again, smearing its pages with fries.” Who can blame her?

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