Critics, in one way, are sort of like World War II submarine captains: they love nothing more than a juicy target — and the bigger, the better. In TINSEL, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever has two of the most tempting targets in his sights — well, three if you count Sarah Palin, who just merits a quick sideswipe here.
The first — and less obvious — is the concept of the Edge City. First popularized by Stuever’s Washington Post colleague Joel Garreau, the Edge City is what was once pasture and is now a 21st century metropolis with malls, big-box stores serving as urban centers, and new communities tied to — but far from — urban downtowns, largely without history and (depending on who you talk to) wholly without a soul.
Stuever, a self-confessed member of the godless East Coast liberal media, seizes on Frisco, Texas as his Edge City target. Frisco was once a small community in Collin County, a railroad
depot in the vast expanse of prairie north of Dallas. Today, it has over 100,000 residents, a sprawling shopping mall, a Double-A baseball team, and the usual agglomeration of chain retail and dining establishments. In short (not least because Collin County is solidly Republican), it can, under the right circumstances (and if you’re a deep-dyed “urbanist” blue-state liberal), symbolize all that is wrong with America.
Stuever rents a room in a mini-mansion, researches the town’s history, geology and demographics, and identifies three families to follow around the barren and bleak Edge City
landscape. But Frisco is only his secondary target. Stuever is after something bigger; indeed, the biggest thing that there is: the Christmas season and the absolute maelstrom of consumer spending attendant to it. And although the commercialization of Christmas is one of the favorite dead horses for critics to beat (right up there with who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays and the college football playoff system), Stuever manages to go a few steps beyond the usual so-this-is-what-it-has-come-to story.
The author finds his first family on Black Friday in line waiting for the Frisco Best Buy to open its doors at an ungodly hour (the mother serves as “praise leader” for a big-box church, which, predictably, gets skewered as well). The second family features a stay-at-home mom who has a small business where she decorates the homes of harried suburbanites who don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. The third family is consumed with one of those colorful Christmas light displays you see in beer commercials that draws visitors from all over the Metroplex.
TINSEL, like Christmas itself, is wonderful if you’re in the right mood — and if you’re not, it can make you wish you were dead. Stuever’s biting humor (which owes at least a small debt to David Sedaris) undercuts the sticky sentimentality of the season. But it’s his skills as a reporter in noticing the small, telling details that make this book such a fascinating read (his analysis of the Christmas village figurine industry is worth the cost of the book all by itself).
If TINSEL was just a snarky, mean-spirited take on the holiday season as celebrated in a soulless corner of flyover country, it would be a worthwhile and timely effort. What distinguishes Stuever’s work here is not just the excellence of his prose but that it is leavened with more than a little introspection and regret. Just when you think he has gone too far in his criticism — and I say this as a proud son of the North Texas prairie — Stuever takes a step back, examines his attitudes, and manages to find some good in the holiday and those who celebrate it. For a critic, that is quite the achievement.