HEN THEY STARTED planning Our Towns in 2012, it looked like James and Deborah Fallows had found a clever new way to explore the heart and soul of flyover country. For the next four years, with James at the controls of their $600,000 single-engine prop airplane, the married pair of Atlantic writers intermittently dropped in on about 30 small towns and cities, from seaside Eastport, Maine, to James' hometown of Redlands, California.
Sometimes going back once or twice, sometimes staying for a week or even three, the couple explored the civic and socioeconomic health of such disparate American places as metropolitan Columbus, Ohio, and dusty Ajo, Arizona. They sipped local craft beers with the hippest, brightest, most progressive residents to ft nd out how they were resurrecting deindustrialized towns, handling waves of immigrants, or otherwise dealing with national and global changes beyond their control.
Our Towns is the couple's account of their prolonged search for the "heart of America." It bills itself as a "vivid, surprising portrait of the civic and economic reinvention" that's happening under the radar of the national media, in places like Rapid City, Erie, Demopolis, Holland, Bend, Sioux City, Allentown, and Greenville.
With the Fallowses in the cockpit, you'd expect a smart, serious, and enlightening work of high-quality journalism--a 408-page Atlantic cover piece. James has 11 previous books under his belt, and Deborah's writings about women, education, and travel have appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, and elsewhere. Yet this collection of small-town snapshots is a plane wreck.
Our Towns sometimes reads like a bunch of travel notes stapled together chronologically. Other times it feels like it was written from 2,500 feet. It's overloaded with chamber-of-commerce details and laden with dull quotes from local politicians and other civic big shots. Repetitive and often stale, it contains no edge, no humor, no hate, not even any photos. It's the worst kind of serious journalism: the boring kind.
THE FALLOWSES, WHO equitably took turns writing mini-chapters, didn't help things by taking four years to complete their geographically lopsided journey. (About half of the 29 places they cover, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Burlington, Vermont, hosted them in 2013 and 2014--an eon ago.) Their eccentric sampling of towns includes one in Texas, none in Florida, three in Kansas, five in California, and three in Mississippi.