The writer James Fallows is dropping in on the Central Arkansas Library System this month, but not quite the same way he’s grown accustomed to descending on America’s towns.
For his 12th book, the longtime Atlantic correspondent and National Book Award winner spent five years flying his own plane to dozens of off-the-beaten-path communities to take the pulse of the nation. The result was “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” written with Deborah Fallows, who happens to be James’ spouse.
The difference on this trip to Little Rock is that Fallows will be flying commercial.
“Alas, it’s with Delta or United or something,” he said. “I have a back-to-back-to-back schedule to keep, and when you have to get someplace at a given time, the airlines are the way.” He’ll also be flying solo, in a sense. “Deb, as it happens, has another obligation that day.”
Fallows will be giving CALS’ J.N. Heiskell Distinguished Lecture for Journalism at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Ron Robinson Theater downtown. The topic will be “Our Towns,” an account of the couple’s town-hopping in a Cirrus SR-22 (the model famous for having a parachute that can save the whole plane).
The Fallowses managed to avoid parachute emergencies; instead, they glimpsed a new perspective on the nation. “You see the country differently from 2,000 feet up,” Fallows says.
And what did they see?
“Just at a time when national politics is so difficult and bitter and dysfunctional and polarizing — no matter your point of view it has become this way — most places are encouraged by local renewal,” Fallows said in a phone interview from Washington as the first raindrops of Hurricane Florence arrived last week. The book describes local citizens finding a sense of unity that defies national trends, and prevailing together against problems like opioid addiction, policing and economic displacement.
Fallows has been an observer and writer on the American scene for most of his 69 years, for everything from the Harvard Crimson to Atlantic, where he won the National Magazine Award in 2003 for “Iraq: The 51st State?” A Rhodes Scholar, Fallows was still in his 20s when he became chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter; later, he was editor of U.S. News & World Report, and his “National Defense” won the 1982 National Book Award for general nonfiction. He’s an instrument-rated pilot who celebrated personal aviation in 2001’s “Free Flight.”
Fallows doesn’t always subtitle his books, but when he does, the subheadings summarize his themes with cutting clarity. “Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy,” is one example. Another is “Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel.”
For the new work, the “100,000-Mile Journey” reflects the breadth of the authors’ search for America’s core in their newly bought single-engine propeller plane. The authors traveled to most of the 40-odd towns they profiled several times, and critical and reader response to the book has been enthusiastic. It cracked the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list after its release three months ago, and an HBO documentary is in the works, Fallows said. A recent crowd for an author discussion in Knoxville, Tennessee, was 1,000 strong.
“The book is essentially the story of a journey,” he said, evoking William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.” That road-trip book plunged far beyond America’ superhighways to places too few travelers see. “‘Blue Highways’ was actually in Atlantic,” Fallows said, noting that the book made a major impression.
The locales in “Our Towns” come into view from the air. Fallows’ vessel, Tail No. N435SR, is a definite character in the book, but the true message comes from voices on the ground. “They’re saying here’s what’s happening in Sioux Falls, here’s what’s happening in Duluth, Minnesota,” Fallows said. “People are telling stories that apply in Little Rock, in El Dorado, and in Bentonville, where I’ll be in a couple of months.”
Fallows, who introduces himself on the phone as Jim, says the essential premise is that while national-level dysfunction is grabbing headlines, local renewal goes largely unnoticed.
“We talk about the importance of having distinct local patriots, people who believe that the future of these places really matters, and do something to make a better future possible,” he said.
Jim and Deb Fallows heard from civic and business leaders, everyday workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, city planners and entrepreneurs. They describe a trend of civic and economic reinvention fueled by practical thinking unmoored from partisan politics and vitriol.
“We picked up on clearly understood local stories,” Fallows said. “What is the story of Little Rock now? What are the problems, strengths and approaches to improvement? We learned practical things in these towns about the importance of community colleges, for example. Research institutions are great, but for thousands of people looking to improve life, the local community college is crucial.”
The book, published by Pantheon, a division of Penguin Random House, essentially upends the notion of “flyover country.” The Cirrus was perfect for hopping to American towns far from international airports, and the book describes stops in Guymon, Oklahoma; Caddo Lake, Texas; and Columbus, Mississippi. There were no stops in Arkansas itself, but several places, like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and San Bernardino, California, have populations and problems in line with Little Rock’s. The view of America that emerges is one of energy, compassion, dreams and determination to make communities better.
While he’s in town, Fallows is eager to see an old friend, Bill Whitworth, his editor for 20 years at the Atlantic.
Whitworth, who left the Arkansas Gazette in 1963 for New York and fame at the Herald Tribune and the New Yorker, returned to Little Rock after retiring as the Atlantic’s top editor more than a decade ago. “I’m very much looking forward to catching up with him,” Fallows said.
Speaking of the Gazette, the J.N. Heiskell lecture honors its longest-serving employee, the boss who never quit: Heiskell owned and edited the paper for more than 70 years, until within months of his death at 100 in 1972.