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Books: Unlocked Doors

2 minute read
R.Z. Sheppard

BIRD, KANSAS by Tony Parker

Knopf; 327 pages; $19.95

It is a little like The Wizard of Oz played backward. British journalist Tony Parker gets caught up in a brainstorm with his editor and is blown from batty Albion into the middle of humdrum Kansas. There, in Dorothy’s native land, he finds not a winding yellow brick road but a grid of blacktop highways crossing one another at predictable right angles. Instead of tin men and cowardly lions, there is a pride of stolid citizens unashamed of their placid routines and quick with the thank-yous and have-a-nice-days. Wicked witches? Nope, but there is a local drunk who tells dirty jokes.

Bird (pop. 2,000) is not the real name of the town where Parker records the steady rhythms of the American heartland. Interviewees are also understood to have noms de cassette, although the use of anonymity to protect the innocent raises the question Protect them against what? “Folks go out and leave their doors unlocked, park their vehicles and leave the keys in the ignition and know they’ll still be there when they come back,” says County Sheriff Jim Arnoldsen.

The old folks are definitely at home. Says Mayor Lester Gover, 84: “You won’t find Bird in no guidebooks — but then you won’t find Kansas either, least in some guidebooks I’ve seen. That don’t stop it being a neat little place to live and die in though.” If you ask for a Teflon cake pan at East West Hardware, you are still told that is the sort of thing you are more likely to find in Baxter, 30 miles away, according to Marilyn Ryman, now living in Los Angeles. Her description of her homecomings: “Like seeing an old movie you’ve seen ten times already.”

A patient interviewer and an even more patient listener, Parker captures the appeal of the familiar without sounding quaint or condescending. His Kansas is certainly less exciting than the one Truman Capote invented nearly 25 years ago, when he absented himself from Manhattan’s society lunch circuit to pioneer the true-crime genre with In Cold Blood. The modest truths conveyed by Parker will not sell as well but may last longer.

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