Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby (Spiegel & Grau, $25)
Reviewed by Edward Nawotka
In 2006, Entertainment Weekly writer Karen Valby uprooted herself from New York City to settle in the Hill Country town of Utopia, a place with a half-mile long Main Street featuring “zero stoplights, one constable, six real estate offices, and seven churches” and where just 540 of the 1,650 P.O. boxes at the local post office are taken.
She came, she confesses, with an agenda: Her editors sent her to find a place “somewhere in America without popular culture.” For the most part, she finds what she’s looking for -– after all, the nearest movie theater is a 50-minute drive away in Uvalde. She also discovers a town with a rich inner life, one that is a microcosm of the challenges small towns face all over the country, be it the loss of loved ones, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or young people longing to escape to the excitement of bigger cities — in this case, San Antonio and Austin. Where, as it happens, Valby herself now lives.
As she starts her on-and-off two-year stint, Valby, a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, isn’t exactly a Texas newbie. Locals are wary, nonetheless, particularly after her initial story runs in EW. The townspeople can be hard on outsiders -– old men brag about running spandex-clad weekend cyclists off the road with their trucks -– but Valby is undaunted. She ingratiates herself to the group of men who gather each morning before sun-up for coffee and chitchat at the general store.
“There is no comfort zone deeper and narrower than that of an old-timer in a small town,” she notes. They form a kind of Greek chorus for the book, debating events big and small, from whether the town should allow alcohol sales (the idea is voted down) to the impending election of President Barack Obama, which puts the full extent of their lingering prejudices (and a surprising openness) on display.
Throughout, Valby offers snapshots of the daily lives of individuals that include several teens and twenty-somethings as they consider their futures and whether to leave. These include Kelli, an aspiring musician, eventual prom queen and only black student at the high school; Colter, a young man with a fondness for kitschy thrift-store clothing who drives to see movies alone and dreams of becoming a video game designer rather than inheriting the family ranch; and, finally, several young men who join the military, most of whom return, and some who don’t.
What emerges is a rich portrait of a community, bound by tradition and grief, sickness and success, and most of all, a commitment to one another.
They even make room for Valby. Friends eventually present her with a handmade “Certificate of Acceptance as a Genuine Old-Timer.” She, in turn, has repaid them in kind, as her literary portrait of them sits comfortably on the bookshelf next to other classic works about the culture of small-town America, including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.
Of course, those works were fiction. This, as the denizens of Utopia would no doubt tell you, is something altogether more powerful and important: real life.