Book Reviews, Literary


The author of Off Ramp takes readers on a journey into the excess and beauty of Christmas in an American suburb by following three people through all their holiday preparations and celebrations. Reprint.

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.


No, We Are Not Driving To the North Pole Anytime Soon


Because I said so, that’s why.

Because it’s too far.

Because I said it was too far.

How about because we drove to the mall last night, and you said before we left the house that you didn’t have to go potty, and you didn’t even make it as far as the Quick Chek before we had to stop the car so you could go potty, that’s why.

Because, hello, it’s a 71-hour drive to the North Pole. That means 71 different pit stops for you, at minimum, and there is no way I am going to drive this minivan for 71 hours straight stopping at every single fast-food restaurant and convenience store on the Al-Can. And once you get past Saskatoon, there aren’t even a lot of Tim Horton’s on the way.

Yes, it is totally that far. And that 71 hours just gets us to the part where the roads end, okay? You have to take, like, a dogsled to get the rest of the way. And I don’t know how to drive a dogsled. Do you know? Okay then. So we’re not going to the North Pole.

We’re not taking the Polar Express. That was just a story. There’s no train that goes that far north, and besides, you were terrified when we saw the movie. You want to ride on that actual train? No? Well, then. Fine.

But there is no actual train. That was all made-up.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. I never said Santa was made up. Santa is real.

And the elves.

And the workplace. All that is real. But the train part, that’s just a story.

No, we couldn’t take a plane. There would be nowhere to land it. The runway is big enough for a sleigh, but not an airplane. It wouldn’t work.

Even if you flew over the North Pole in a plane, you still wouldn’t see Santa’s workshop, because it’s not really real.

That’s not what I’m saying. Santa is real. That’s not made up. But the whole “North Pole” thing is really just a metaphor. You know what a metaphor is, right? Like when you say you’re hungry enough to eat a horse? But you’re really not going to eat a horse. That’s too much to eat, and you wouldn’t want any horsemeat anyway.

Actually, they eat it in France. It’s a delicacy. But that’s not the point. The point is that, look, nobody really knows where Santa’s workshop is. It could be anywhere. We say it’s at the North Pole, but that’s really just a metaphor for a place that’s far away and cold and impossible to get to. It’s not a real place.

Not pictured: Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius, Abominable Snow Monster.

Well, the actual North Pole is a real place. And people have gone there. Arctic explorers. And polar bears. Mommy flew over the North Pole that time when she went to that conference in South Korea. But even if we went to the real North Pole, which we are not going to do, you wouldn’t find Santa’s workshop. It’s hidden. People aren’t supposed to go there because it’s so magical.

But that was just a movie, buddy. It’s not real. It was a movie set, and Santa was an actor. A guy named Tim Allen. Did you know he was Buzz Lightyear? Because he was.

No, we can’t get on Buzz Lightyear’s ship and go to the North Pole, either. Just forget I said anything, okay?

Because, like I said, it’s a metaphor.

No. I mean, yes. In a way. I mean, you can look at Santa Claus that way, if you wanted to. You could say that Santa was just a metaphor for human kindness and goodness and decency and love. That’s certainly one way to look at it. But Santa Claus is real, though. He’s a real guy. Don’t worry about that part.

No, the Transformers can’t take you to the North Pole. They’re just toys.

Well, technically, since you got them for Christmas last year, they have been there before. But they were in a box. They probably don’t know the way back.

I imagine the real Transformers could take you to the North Pole, if they were real, but they’re not. They’re just pretend.

I think Optimus Prime and Santa probably are friends.

Hey! There’s Starbucks. You want to go to Starbucks? You can get a nice hot chocolate. Want to?

And a cookie. Sure, why not? Let’s go to Starbucks and have a cookie.

We’re not going to the North Pole after we get done at Starbucks. Okay? Give it a rest.


Because I said so.

Because Santa Claus is watching you right now to see if you’re going to listen and do what I say.

He is too real.

Okay. Come on. Unbuckle out of that car seat, and let’s go get a cookie.