- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

Roger k. Miller

on Phil Stong’s

State fair

“Our state fair

Is a great state fair.

It’s the best state fair

In our state.”

— From Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair”

The Storekeeper in Phil Stong’s 1932 novel, “State Fair,” is one of the most delightful characters in the attic of American literature. He is an amiable pessimist among pragmatic optimists in a not-quite-obscure work that occupies a small literary field almost all by itself — that of the American state fair. While there are other delightful characters in the attic, only “State Fair” says state fair.

And why not? It is set in a state — Iowa — that for many Americans, and not just Iowans, says America. Even those east of the Delaware who consider the entire Midwest to be a sink of yahoodom have a sneaking suspicion that probably it is somehow the real America, and Iowa is, culturally if not geographically, the middest of the Midwest.

The author was a native Hawkeye — born in 1899 in Keosauqua — and two of the three movies made from his novel retained the state’s setting, the 1933 dramatic version starring Will Rogers and the famous 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (their only film score). The 1962 remake of the musical kept the songs but shifted the setting to Texas and sank without a trace.

Back to the Storekeeper: He is tangential to the novel’s plot but central to its story, which is one of wrestling with and about fate. Of course, the book is about Ma and Pa Frake going to the state fair with their two grown children, Margy and Wayne, and having fun there. But just as the bucolic scenes of Grant Wood (another Iowan) are more than bucolic scenes, so does the book, beneath its deceptive old Saturday Evening Post-style slightness, wrestle ever so slyly with questions of Life and Fate.

The Storekeeper has decided opinions about Fate. He thinks it’s out to get you if you don’t watch out: “He believed, with Jack London’s Sea Wolf, that Heaven ordains all things for the worst — but more mischievously than tragically. He thought of God as a slightly perverse, omnipotent small child, breaking his jam jars all over the Storekeeper’s life.”

Not an especially elevated way to think of the Deity, who, furthermore, seems to be indistinguishable from “Them” — Fate or the Fates. Remember, he tells the loafers in his store, “you can’t get away from Them,” which is why it is never wise to take the chains off your car’s tires just because the sun is shining. Abel Frake goes to the fair in Des Moines hoping his boar, Blue Boy, will take the top prize; his wife, Melissa, has the same hopes for her pickles. Melissa is a philosophical fellow traveler with the Storekeeper, but with a twist. She plans for things to happen, even unpleasant things, because then they’re not so unpleasant. “If you’re careful you can make everything you want come out the way you want it to,” she tells Margy. “I always have.”

Their children go to the fair looking to scratch the itch of restlessness. They are bored with the routine of their lives. “Sometimes don’t you feel like you’d like to go away somewhere and just raise hell — about everything?” Margy asks her brother. The answer for both of them is Yes. They lose themselves in the metropolitan crowds — “as Des Moines understands metropolitanism” — and while Ma and Pa think they are off riding the roller coaster or playing hoop toss, they are actually busy discovering Love and Sex with an intensity usually reserved for weightier novels.

Romance is everywhere. Blue Boy, whose porcine placidity has been disturbed by the long ride to the fair and who lethargically awaits “the return of a Republican administration to nature,” perks up when a sow named Esmeralda is put into a pen next to his. Esmerlda’s raising Blue Boy’s spirits helps Abel win the hog sweepstakes, and the intervention of Margy’s fair-time lover, a Des Moines Register reporter, helps Melissa win several blue ribbons for her pickles. Wayne’s and Margy’s love affairs are at fever pitch. Everyone gets what he or she wanted.

Obviously it’s time to go home. Abel and Melissa get to take their prizes with them, but not Wayne and Margy. Wayne’s more worldly lover, Emily, tells him that their worlds are too different for their relationship to continue. In Margy’s case, she is the one to impart the same wisdom to her more worldly partner, Pat. Why? Well, because that’s the way things are. Margy had told Pat, “Frakes think you ought to manage things and not let things manage you.” But, Frakes to the contrary, apparently some things, including love, cannot be planned or managed.

Unless, perhaps, you plan and manage perversely, like the Storekeeper, for whom good news means bad news. (Not unlike our modern stock market, actually.) At the end of the novel, set in the late 1920s but published with the hindsight wisdom of 1932, the Storekeeper says business is too good and he is pulling in his economic horns to avoid being caught overstocked in the coming Depression.

Roger K. Miller, a native of Upstate New York, lives and writes in Wisconsin, but visits neighboring Iowa every chance he gets.

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