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Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present


Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present

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.

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present
by Hank Stuever

  • Publication Date: November 11, 2010
  • Genres: Cultural Studies, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 054739456X
  • ISBN-13: 9780547394565