For those who know Paris or Rome better than Des Moines or even Kansas City (and certainly such persons are numerous along the East Coast), Douglas Bauer's "Prairie City, Iowa" may have a special charm added to its basic charms of being interesting and well-written. That is the charm of exoticism -- an exoticism particularly piquant because it deals with people who are, in a sense, our next-door neighbors.
Douglas Bauer is an ideal guide for a city person's excursion into the dark heartland of our continent. Born in Prairie City (a town which had fewer than 1,000 people at the time but now has nearly 1,200 and feels crowded), he found he had no talent or inclination for farming and made his way, eventually, to Chicago and an editorial position at Playboy magazine -- a change of life style that could hardly have been more drastic if he had moved to China.
A dozen years later, having moved on from Playboy to free-lance writing, he decided to go home for a while, taking with him "two kinds of curiosity, a native's and a stranger's." He brought home also a writing skill that does not grow as readily as corn, wheat or soybeans in Prairie City, though it is intensively cultivated elsewhere in Iowa. All of equipment is needed, it soon becomes evident, to obtain a detailed, accurate and readable profile of such a place, for although Prairie City seems to be "a plain and open-moving place . . . fashioned for study, built to an observable scale," there are subtleties there that the eye of a stranger, particularly an urban stranger, cannot readily see.
To those who occasionally fly over them or drive through them, the large, square, agricultural states of the Midwest seem almost empty -- for hours on end, almost nothing but acres of carefully nurtured vegetation. Bauer has enough of a city person's eye to share this view, but enough of a farmer's and a small-town insider's knowledge to set down an alternate, contrasting vision: "Prairie City is not only lyrically open, it is also tightly congested; and these two realities -- one visual, one emotional -- psychically compete. For while it may appear a vast, congenial field, people own and work the land in patches."
A farmer, looking at this terrain and knowing it, sees not "measureless stretches . . . but a flat, rich real estate, crowded as the cities of India. . . . The farmer feels a claustrophobic scarcity of space, as he looks for room in the land he already has, planting narrower rows, running these rows over ground that was weeds and fence, feeding more and more fertilizer into the soil, working precisely measured rectangles with something infinite in mind."
The congestion lies not only in the fields teeming with huddled vegetable population, but in the tiny city itself. Prairie City is only 20 miles from Des Moines (though that is another world), and it has begun to attract a commuter population -- not people looking for inexpensive land (the land in Prairie City is a strong captial asset and expensive), but looking for the amenities that have begun to disappear even in Des Moines -- quiet streets, an open horizon, neighbors who are neither hostile nor frightened. Some people in Prairie City fear that these new residents may bring with them the conditions they are fleeing, that they will not act with due care for the community where they sleep, and they wonder what can be done about the problem. So far, the answer in nothing; the influx is still small, but it can be expected to grow.
For a city with fewer residents than many apartment buildings on the East Coast, Prairie City had a remarkably rich urban life. There is a cement plant on the edge of town, the only heavy industry in the area, and there are a fair number of people who live not off the land but off the farmers and factory workers: a doctor (and his wife, who runs for mayor in the course of the book), a television repairman, the proprietor of a lunch room (whose doughnut-making is described in lavish detail), the owners of the local tavern and the cement plant (who are regarded with some suspicion by the plain folks, as are all prominent people). As Bauer begins to examine these people, and their relationships with one another and the community, the raw material for a novel slowly unfolds.
Considering that this is a book about farm country, it may seem that Bauer gives a disproportionate space to the few urbanites in Prairie City -- but that is largely because two of his "three seasons" are autumn and winter, when farmers have relatively little to do. Come planting time, we are plunged into the rich soil of Iowa as he goes out to help on his father's farm, and in many ways this final section is the most rewarding part of a very rewarding book. As he gets close to the soil, his writing takes on a flavor almost of Robert Frost (without the Yankee accent):
"As much as farmers show their suspicion of the skies, and speak of weather, government and the world's markets as living adversaries, they also assume each year a virginal faith. They place thousands of dollars in seeds into the ground, thinly cover them, and go away, leaving them untended and exposed. A trust -- more essential than rich land, the best hybrids, or new equipment -- is required for farming; an almost organic trust that cities have long lost or perhaps never had."
In conveying the feeling of this trust and the context in which it grows, Bauer has produced a valuable book -- almost a therapeutic book -- for city-dwellers.