I must admit that as far as reading habits go, I’m pretty much a middlebrow snob. To come out and say it, in general I prefer my literature on the thematically weighty and/or stylistically complex side; Bernaires is about the “lightest” reading with which I feel really comfortable. Like many American men who are somewhat educated, liberal, and artistically inclined I’ve been brainwashed to believe that thematically fluffy, quirky-character-driven fiction is somehow in slightly bad taste.
Because of this, when I received Mark Dunn’s Welcome to Higby to review, and when I saw that it was a novel about a small southern town and its quirky cast of inhabitants, my heart sank. This story is one that has been done so often that it has become a genre in its own right, a cliché endlessly recycled in movies, sitcoms, and airport novels. Unless an author can do “quirky small town” as well as Carson McCullers, I tend to think, or “cast of loveable eccentrics” as well as Zadie Smith, they’re better off steering clear of the whole terrain. So I did what anyone in my position would have done: I procrastinated about reading Welcome to Higby and doing this review. I let the book sit on my “in” pile while I read Susan Faludi’s Stiffed and something by Robertson Davies and the Dalai Lama’s latest book.
Then something terrible happened:
I found out that I needed to do some calculus.
It so happens that I often do software engineering work, and it was in undertaking a certain engineering problem that the issue of calculus came up. When I realized that the only way to solve a set of problems which confronted me was to use differential-based curve fitting, I panicked. Searching Google for how-to articles on mathematical topics, I began to have back spasms and had trouble engaging in basic conversations.
This was my frame of mind when finally – unable to summon the energy for weighty reading, and with a deadline looming in front of me – I finally picked up Welcome to Higby. And a strange thing happened:
I found myself enjoying it.
For those not familiar with Mark Dunn, Higby is his sophomore effort. His first novel, Ella Minnow Pea, is a charming fairy tale about the language-loving inhabitants of an island named Nollop, who must adapt to a shrinking alphabet after a letter goes missing. This time, Dunn uses biblical quotations to guide his narrative which follows the residents of Higby, MI, over the course of a long Labor Day weekend. The townsfolk of Higby are an assortment of oddballs and eccentrics, including Stewie Kipp, a born-again Christian, Talitha Leigh, a floozy who is kidnapped by a vegan cult, Hank Grammar, an old man who preaches Jesus to neighborhood pets, a chatty guardian angel who helps one character “stretch her shopping dollar,” a disillusioned minister, and many others.
All these stories are woven together in Higby to form a vast and tightly connected landscape of people, incidents, and interactions, all narrated with a detachment and lightness of tone that reads like the voice of a bemused small god looking down to survey their creation. Dunn’s prose is capable and a pleasure to read, if never pyrotechnic; his greatest strength, perhaps, is his ability to describe characters and their unique world-views with a few well-chosen, easy strokes. Think Garrison Keillor meets V.S. Naipul.
This is not to say that Dunn avoids all the clichés that his choice of subject and narrative style typically entail: he doesn’t. Many of the novel’s twists and outcomes are predictable – of course the good-hearted dimwit inherits the old man’s fortune – and many characters are essentially stereotypes. But the unassuming airiness of Higby is such that these things never seem particularly troublesome: they are flaws that can be easily overlooked in the context of Dunn’s breezy humor and pacing, which moves the narrative along at a clip more like a short story than a novel.
Welcome to Higby is in no sense a profound book. But sometimes the familiarity and undemanding accessibility of narratives like this one is exactly what all of us – even middlebrow snobs – need: an opportunity to escape and simply relax, to bask in the sheer pleasure of the act of telling stories as an end in itself. I, at least, could not have asked for anything more in a book to read while soaking in a hot tub, trying to forget the ache in my back.
Mr. Dunn’s book is available for purchase at
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.