A Fair To Remember

Stong's book showed that the best fit for the fair may not be the essay, but the pulp novel--witness Pete Hautman's 1996 The Mortal Nuts, a manic mystery set at the Minnesota fair. The book is a wild and offbeat romp among the food concessions, "researched" over the five years in the late '70s when Hautman worked at the fair's pineapple-on-a-stick stand. What's most refreshing about it is the absence of any condescension or irony, even though Hautman plays on just as many state fair stereotypes as Wallace. "The number of people milling about was staggering," he writes in one characteristic vignette. "Like a rock festival, but without the stage to provide direction and focus. He had never seen so many people, especially so many chunked-out people, all in motion at the same time. Where the hell was he?"

The fair turns out to be a perfect setting for Hautman's unique literary conceits. A typical Hautman novel pits a gritty, poker-playing Hemingway type against the insidious forces of soft-headed New Age poppycock. "These are the hemispheres of my personality," says Hautman. "And the State Fair is a great leveler. You can be a wealthy doctor-lawyer, but it will not get you your corn dog any faster. It's a wonderful place for finding contrasts and commonalities of every type." So does all this recent literary attention signal the upscaling of yet another American tradition? Sure, says Marling--but in a different sense than you might think. The one constant about the fair, and the single biggest truth that David Foster Wallace missed, she argues, is its role as a barometer of the times. Both the automobile and the airplane were first introduced to the local public at the Minnesota State Fair, Marling notes. "[The fair] is tremendously sensitive to the winds of change, even though there might be aspects of it that strike the snotty urban dweller as being hopelessly out of date, like sheep judging."

Hautman concurs, based on a lifetime of observation. "The fair has changed tremendously over the past 30 years," he says. "It's safer, cleaner, and much larger. The food choices have multiplied sixfold." Call it upscaling, Marling says, or call it moving on: "Americans have always strived for something better. People went to the fair before there was even a fairgrounds, to see things that would make their lives better. Which is what I think a definition of upscaling is all about."

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