The cities explored run the gamut, from Las Vegas and Boise to Cleveland and Providence. The book is so vast, in other words, you’d almost need a functioning rail system to traverse it. And, again, it’s every bit as deep as it is wide. Dayna Tortorici’s essay on Los Angeles, for example, appears to mirror that city’s galactic structure, considering everything from its traffic to its representation in cinema. Ben Merriman’s “Lessons of the Arkansas,” possibly my favorite of the collection, both reflects my understanding of a geography I once knew and expands it, mostly by linking it to other regions by way of a bravura microhistory. Emily Witt’s “Miami Party Boom,” a story of Miami’s “road to hell” — as Gessen and Squibb put it — is among the funniest of all recent American essays.
If City by City suggests that we’re bound together by the shock of the crisis, it also points to a future resistance that begins with a greater awareness of other histories, other cities and regions. And, taken piece by piece, it advocates for what filmmaker Thom Andersen (mentioned in Tortorici’s essay) calls “militant nostalgia” — a willingness to intervene in the past in order to change it. Take Greg Afinogenov’s “Milwaukee’s Gilded Age and Aftermath,” which recovers part of that city’s Socialist history, or Moira Donegan’s reflection on the recent shock-doctrinaire invasion of New Orleans, which now hosts Katrina bus tourism.
I have serious doubts about whether this country knows itself in any meaningful sense. But I’m sure that without writing like this, collected and edited with care over many years, we cannot feel deeply or think clearly enough about the lives of other Americans to pressure against the maniac decisions of state legislatures, for example, or intervene in the tragedy that defines our border with Mexico. As part of n+1’s ongoing contribution to our political, intellectual, and literary scene, City by City — with its dispatches from unknown or under-known writers — could be the most substantial and urgent so far.