Boomtown by Sam Anderson: A Biography of the American Spirit

I had an idea for a long, self-involved post about me for New Year’s. I’m still going to write and post it, but I’m scheduling it for January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

So here’s a short rave – not quite a review—of a great book I read over the New Year’s weekend, Boomtown by Sam Anderson. This is not exactly a disclaimer; I met Sam Anderson when he was a teenager, several times, at holidays at his grandmother’s house. While I would love to say “I know him,” (as in, “Oh, yeah, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sam Anderson, I know him), that is stretching things a bit. My original interest of the book did come from that fact that I recognized his name, and I’d read other shorter works of his.

Boomtown is nonfiction, and it’s about Oklahoma City.  If you’d told me a month ago I would love a book about Oklahoma City, I probably would have choked on my coffee laughing. The book is not about the worst act of domestic terrorism in the country’s history, although it’s in there; it’s not about a city routinely devastated by tornadoes, although they are in there, it’s not about the OKC Thunder’s 2012 basketball season, although that is the through-line Anderson uses; it’s about a city that shouldn’t even exist, a wild, inventive scam of a city, a perennial boomtown that regularly busts, and invents itself again.

Through the lens of a midwestern city in a state once called “the reddest in the nation” (politically); a state where teachers fled in droves to neighboring states because they couldn’t live on what they were paid, Anderson writes a biography of the colonial American spirit, in all its imagination and inventiveness and all its blood-soaked injustice. And, oh yeah, basketball, starting with a team once named the Seattle SuperSonics, which OKC basically stole and carried off to their “small market” city; a team that, in 2012, had three superstars; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James “the Beard” Harden.

Anderson thoroughly and meticulously researched Oklahoma City, even while he was covering the 2012 roundball season and its attendant drama (the general manager traded Harden away with little warning when Harden wouldn’t re-sign). The writing is so smooth and approachable, the book so gracefully organized that the research never intruded. Anderson’s conversational, funny narrative voice never intruded either. He has the discipline of a journalist; he is in this book, but he is not the centerpiece. The city is. Anderson’s unflagging curiosity brought him to strange stories and strange corners of a place most of us on one of the coasts would dismiss as “flyover country.”

From its inception the city is based on cheating. First of all, having taken over the entire continent of the native tribal people, the Federal government then broke (another) treaty with them and took away the land that became Oklahoma City. The men who became the city’s Founding Fathers actually cheated at the Land Run. That’s the city’s history. They cheated at a race. If you wondered where the term “Sooner” came from, that’s it; they sneaked into the Land Run territory sooner than legally allowed, and when the bugle sounded to start the race, they came out of hiding and claimed the prime land.

While looking at the racism, corruption, and power-mongering of “city fathers” (and they are all male) for slightly more than a century, Anderson still respects the spirit of the place and the people who live there, and it shows. From a meteorologist who became a regional celebrity to a zany alt-rock recording star, several important civil rights figures as well as prominent writers, he finds people who represent the spirit of OKC beyond the short-sightedness and the inequality. There’s something slightly delusional about the spirit of OKC, and something kind of glorious. Boomtown captures both.

Anderson spent his childhood on the west coast and he now lives on the eastern one. It would be easy for someone with that background to approach a city like OKC with a sense of smugness, superiority and disrespect. Anderson does not.

If you enjoy Sarah Vowell’s books, you will love this one. It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill and hard work that the research, the diligent organization (I want to say “plotting”), and the fluent narrative voice weave together seamlessly. Underlying the talent and hard work, though, is a spark of what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer. That spark is curiosity. Anderson has it and he fanned it into life here. Read Boomtown.

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