Manhattanites, of course, are not really so parochial. Few are likely to think that the inhabitants of so-called flyover country actually are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. On the other hand, a good many of them - and a good many others not confined to Manhattan - might well agree with a presidential candidate who once said of small-town residents in general that "it's not surprising . . . that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them."
This view is in large measure shared by the title character of a novel called Waiting for Zoë (Roberts & Ross Publishing) by retired businessman James R. Ament. Zoë tells her boss - the editor of a paper in a small Wyoming town - that "it seems people here live in this gorgeous flyover country and don't care about anything that matters in the world . . . my world view just doesn't connect with anybody I've met."
I came to know about Ament's novel through my blog, Books, Inq. - The Epilogue, which I started when I was The Inquirer's books editor and have continued since retiring four years ago. I sometimes link to items Ament posts on his blog, and when I learned he had published a novel, I was curious to see what it was like.
It turned out to be a rather engaging read. The story is about two people - Zoë Valiente, a journalism student at Columbia, and Russ Mack, a businessman who has decided to retire early after the untimely deaths of his wife and daughter - and how their lives eventually intersect.
Like many a first novel, it has its shortcomings - the misfortunes that befall Russ and Zoë are a little too patly parallel, and Cody, the Forest Service guy Zoë falls for, is too uncomplicatedly nice.
But what makes the book well worth reading is the insight it provides into how those people who don't connect with Zoë's worldview really think. I've spent some time in farm country in Wisconsin and Iowa, and the thing that always impressed me about the people is their live-and-let-live outlook. The folks I got to know there thought that, within reason, people had the right to think the way they wanted. They even had the right to be wrong. But they didn't think that causes were the most important thing in life.
Martin Coleman, Zoë's boss, tries to explain this to her:
"Zoë, everything one does in life isn't about everything . . . it's pretty sanctimonious to want to view every move you make living your life as having some tragic importance to the world. . . . The world has an agenda - and by that I mean everybody is pulling at you or filling you with their vision of how everything is supposed to be. . . . The world wants your soul, Zoë. Be careful about how much of yourself . . . you want to give up for other people's causes."
He goes on to explain why the people she's just met don't seem to care about what she thinks matters:
"People around here resist that kind of thing because they see themselves as responsible to their families, their friends, their loved ones, and their work . . . the things they have some influence and control over. Spouting political rhetoric just doesn't do much for most of us here. People have too much work to do and they have lives that give them meaning."
Still, while these people may be rugged, they are not radical individualists. When Russ gets to know some old-timers who hang out at a restaurant near the cabin he's rented in Colorado, and one of them suggests that he's "gone John Galt," one of the others asks who John Galt is. Told that's the very question asked in Atlas Shrugged, the guy rolls his eyes and says, "Oh, Ayn Rand." He may not have read the book, but he's heard about the author and her views.
Not all the characters are sweetie-pies, either. There's a randy minister who tries to take advantage of a parishioner who seeks counsel as her marriage is falling apart, and a rancher who beats on his wife. As for Darrel, the political activist boyfriend Zoë left behind in New York, he turns out to be a borderline sociopath. But these characters are all peripheral, as they would be in most people's lives.
Many of the characters are people of faith, and Ament is very good at integrating this into the narrative, making it seem the most natural thing in the world. These are people who grew up going to church, and going to church is as much a part of their lives as Sunday dinner or a baseball game. When Russ talks to Pete, a retired Methodist minister, about what made him become a clergyman, the conversation is as straightforward and without sanctimony as any other conversation about the choice of a profession.
"The short answer is that I felt the call," he says. He quotes John Wesley - "In essentials, unity. In nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity" - then adds: "And Methodism never asked anyone to leave their minds outside the door of the church."
Fiction can serve extra-literary purposes. If you want to know how people in an earlier time lived their lives, don't read a history book. Read the fiction that they read. So if you're thinking of going back to the land, you might want to do yourself a favor and read Hamlin Garland's unblinking look at farm life in his story "Under the Lion's Paw."
And if you want an accurate account of the kind of people who inhabit America's heartland - as a corrective to what you might have read on the op-ed pages or heard at a bien-pensant cocktail party - you just might want to take a look at Waiting for Zoë.
Chat live with Frank Wilson and Jim Ament at 1 p.m. Monday at www.philly.com
E-mail Frank Wilson at PresterFrank@gmail.com.