“Returning becomes an act of rebellion,” Kauffman writes. “But just as no one sings louder than the whore in church, no regional patriotism can match that of the returning prodigal.”
In this intelligent but meandering memoir of small-town life in Batavia, New York, Kauffman—a former Senate staffer and unapologetic leftist—decries modern globalization as realized by Wal-Mart’s 1992 invasion. Kauffman is a Batavian first—so committed to rediscovering his roots that he moves back, wife and child in tow.
Named for the “semi-regular newsletter” of the Muckdogs—Batavia’s minor-league baseball team—the book introduces an eccentric cast of characters including Edna, the alcoholic madam and Batavia’s largest benefactor; Ola McNabb, acclaimed for her strawberry-rhubarb pie; and Reverend Harold Milward, a Methodist minister who used to dress up as Uncle Sam every Election Day when the author was a boy.
“However radical my politics have been,” Kauffman writes, “the impulse to revolution is always snuffed by the memory of Reverend Milward strolling the Y in his Uncle Sam beard and star-banded tall hat. Overthrow that?”
The book rests on the implicit comparison between teeny Batavia and Any City, USA—particularly Washington, whose large transient population makes it, in Kauffman’s words, “a vast homeless center.” While yearning for a place where everyone knows his name, Kauffman tempers his hometown affection with criticism of the town’s major players, whom he finds in part responsible for Batavia’s economic downturn.
The book’s exhaustive historical detail detracts from the complexities of Batavia’s citizenry, but the first and last chapters merrily roll along with pitch-perfect prose. “I cannot conceive of a heaven that is preferable to my town,” Kauffman writes. “Oh Lord, if it’s all the same with you, I’d just as soon stay here. Batavia needs its ghosts.”