Books about place have an almost guaranteed audience of locals who already live in that place and travelers, who may have or may eventually travel to the locale of topic. That can’t necessarily be said of Andy Sturdevant’s book about place, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow.
The 233-page collection of short pieces (called essays by the publisher) explores the more esoteric side of Minneapolis-St. Paul in a way that perhaps only a transplant could do. Hailing originally from Ohio and Kentucky, Sturdevant moved to the Twin Cities about a decade ago and, as an artist and arts administrator, considers the seemingly quotidian artifacts of cultural ephemera that native residents often take for granted within their hometowns: permanent billboard signs, unofficial public art, the milieus around music/sports venues, defunct arts publications, formal paintings of political figures, and more. (Fitting that Coffee House Press, the Minneapolis-based, nonprofit literary publishing house that champions working class topics and authors, would publish his quirky work.)
Potluck, it appears, would less likely be celebrated by literary awards panels than by such entities as chambers of commerce or historical societies within the Twin Cities. One such reason is that the essays are less literary and introspective as they are echoes of his weekly column covering the local arts, architecture, and history in MinnPost. His ability to notice, research, and bring to the public’s attention such quirky topics deserves a nod, so content gets a star, but the quality of the writing, which reads sometimes like reviews and sometimes like blog posts, obliterates that star. Some pieces hit the mark in terms of encapsulating the essence of the place. Others branch out to topics that barely relevant to Minneapolis-St. Paul at all.
Let’s consider some of the hits and misses.
One of the earliest pieces, “Paula McCartney’s On Thin Ice, In a Blizzard,” covers a topic all readers know well: local weather talk. Sturdevant discusses how learning to share bon mots about the weather in the local vernacular grants a sense of community, of shared experience. His first experiences of Upper Midwestern winters, for instance, “felt like being physically assaulted by an alien force in the form of a gust of air that has traveled at blinding speeds, over thousands and thousands of miles… and penetrated my world absolutely.” The piece then expands to critique McCartney’s book of images showcasing global images of that alien force of cold, showing snow and ice and other horrible wintry conditions. One particular accompanying image evokes visceral reactions.
The image accompanying “Painting Falls to Tavern Walls: The Life of Minneapolis’s Most Beloved Artwork” also makes piques the reader’s grey matter. In this “essay” about another curious, purely Minneapolitan topic, Sturdevant writes about Crossings, a landscape painting from 1986 by artist John Bowman. The painting hangs in a bar and “may be the most beloved piece of artwork in the city of,” he writes, not necessarily for its artistic merit but because bar patrons commonly debate whether the subject matter is Minneapolis and whether or not the animals are deer or elk.
Sturdevant moves on to other art in “’Have a Seat, Citizen, I’m Here to Help’: The Completist’s Guide to the 39 Gubernatorial Portraits of the Minnesota State Capitol.” This piece, complete with several facsimiles of the portraits, misses the mark in stirring intrigue. Trying to resurrect the personalities of these (mostly dead) men by reveling in the picayune details of the artistic practices used on their memorializing canvases simply doesn’t bode dynamic. It’s even rare through the essay to determine the writer’s interest in the topic. He does, however, talk about the portraits of nationally recognizable names such as Jesse Ventura’s and Tim Pawlenty’s.
Other, more nationally known subjects do arise in Potluck. These are even more hit or miss. Here are two misses: “Fictitious Times”, for instance, is a compilation of Sturdevant’s favorite films; and “Put That, Put That, Put That on Your Wall,” which discusses Michael Stipe and Christmas lights in the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out.
Most memorable of all was one scene in particular I thought about for years and years after I saw it. In this scene I recalled R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe looking directly into the camera and claiming that he was the first person to ever use Christmas lights as everyday indoor decoration.
One of the hits is “America’s Historic Flags: Which Have Been Co-opted.” Its often humorous discussion on how the Tea Party or other political movements have co-opted flags such as the Gadsden/Minutemen Flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) and the Taunton Liberty Flag contains educational facts that’ll make readers think twice about the significance of flags. Of the Bennington flag (a 76 beneath a rainbow of stars against the blue box and red and white stripes), which he suggests hasn’t quite been co-opted, he writes, “It looks like it should be on someone’s belt buckle— a person at a Jimmy Carter campaign rally, or the person sitting in the back of a Chevy van with bubble-tinted windows and looking like one of the two patriotic stoners in that Freedom Rock four-CD box set commercial.”
Other essays covering local lore, events, and places drive so far down the spectrum of esoteric that they border on minutiae. Consider subjects like “A Field Guide to the Vacant Storefronts of East Lake Street,” a rehash of final editorials printed in various Twin Cities media before they went bust; “Ghost Crawl: Twenty-one Shows Twenty Years Later,” a walk through the former NoWare arts district where, on one night two decades ago, 21 art shows opened simultaneously in downtown Minneapolis.
Again, these are certainly not topics chirped about in the national evening news, and while his exploration in unorthodox subject matter is something to appreciate, the lack of dynamics and dearth of literary techniques means the essays often fall short of interesting to someone unfamiliar with the Twin Cities and not planning to visit there. The book is a breezy read though and will hopefully cause any and all readers to become more aware of their own communities’ history and ephemera.
Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, by Andy Sturdevant. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press. 233 pages. $22.00, clothbound.
Nichole L. Reber is a nonfiction writer whose work has received a gold Traveler’s Tales Solas Award. She’s been published in Recess, EastLit, and The Font.