When I tell my intellectual and liberal-leaning sister-in-law that I’m reviewing a book about southern Indiana, she rolls her eyes and recalls with a shudder the semester she spent in the university town of Bloomington, Indiana.
“It was hands down the worse place I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend two months in,” she says.
“But according to this book, Bloomington is one of the best bits of Indiana, a sort of liberal enclave,” I reply.
“I was never so glad to leave anywhere as I was when I was finally flying out of Bloomington,” she says; subject closed.
Indiana, and in particular its southern hinterland appears to be a part of the world that arouses strong feelings in those that spend time there. Snapper, a first novel by Brian Kimberling, a former Hoosier, or native of Indiana, now living in the UK, addresses those passions head on.
“Everything’s flat, everyone’s fat and you can’t buy beer on Sundays,” according to the novel’s narrator Nathan Lochmueller. And as he explains:
“The dictionary definition of a Hoosier is “a native or resident of Indiana”. The commonest usage in all four states bordering Indiana, and even as far west as St. Louis, is as a synonym for idiot, redneck, lowlife, loser, bumpkin. Reviled on all sides, Hoosiers do not make much of their distinctive name, nor generally think much of their native state.”
Nathan is searching for a way to reconcile himself with his awkward Confederate ancestry, the blighted local landscape, and his fellow Hoosiers. For a living, he counts the declining song bird population in the deep forests and woodland of Indiana. And he’s in love with the charming Lola, who is unfortunately far less likely to mate for life than your average songbird.
En route, he meets a hurricane, a Vietnam veteran, and a vengeful armed Klansman. There are some remarkable characters in here: in particular, the wonderful Maud from Santa Claus, Indiana, who runs a diner and can fix a leaking radiator with raw eggs.
This is a funny book. The narrator reminds me of Bill Bryson, only younger, or Garrison Keillor, but edgier. Yet this Indiana is not the folksy mid west, but a grittier, poorer place, where the unpalatable realities of racism, ignorance and poverty play out in a scarred landscape.
Linked episodes give a nice loose narrative arc to this novel. At its heart, it’s a love poem, not to the elusive Lola, but to whole unglamourous region, and to all those awkward individuals who don’t fit the mould. The novel, and this is one of its huge and humane strengths, takes a perverse joy in humanity, even the southern Indiana variety.
I will be sending my sister-in-law a copy, and I expect it will make her laugh.
Any Cop?: Funny, intelligent, and everything you ever wanted to know about southern Indiana. Buy.