Column
September 25, 2014

Rating Bohjalian

There are a lot of similarities between me and Chris Bohjalian. We both grew up in the New York City metropolitan area. We both write fiction. We both additionally serve as columnists for Vermont newspapers: he writes weekly for the Burlington Free Press, I fortnightly for The Mountain Times.

There are also a fair number of differences between us. Chris Bohjalian has written—I think—16 novels (lately churning out roughly one per year), of which at least nine have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list; I have so far written one novel, which I worked on for four and a half years and for which I’ve yet to find a publisher. Chris Bohjalian’s writing has won a multitude of awards; mine has not. Chris Bohjalian knows Oprah; I have never met Oprah. Chris Bohjalian maintains a strong social media presence, including a Twitter account, where he pops in roughly four times a day to share pictures of his cats (as well as glowing reviews of his novels) and occasionally to offer profound quotations from his own back catalogue, and a blog, where he cross-posts his columns; I at present don’t even have a Facebook page.

Since (unlike The Mountain Times) the Burlington Free Press is not actually free, Bohjalian’s blog is where I usually read his columns.

Bohjalian’s column is called “Idyll Banter,” and it is, in his own words (taken from the trailer for the 2003 Random House hardcover collection of his favorite pieces), a column “about a small town—the sort of gloriously quirky little village that we thought was long vanished.” His columns “weave a story about a family and a community. Sometimes I write about the everyday issues that matter to my neighbors: parenthood, marriage, the dead bat in the woodstove… Mostly, however, the columns are banter: banter about foliage, banter about my daughter, banter about my 15-year-old pal with Down Syndrome, banter about the wondrous idyll that is my life in a delightfully eccentric corner of the country.” (Random House has not yet thought to release a “Generation Y” hardcover collection, let alone to produce a YouTube trailer for it.)

It is pretty clear that, with a book to sell, Bohjalian was taking dead-aim at that barrel of stressed-out, gullible urbanites who hold an exploitable candle for the Grover’s Corners of their high school “Our Town” productions when he recorded the cockle-warming voiceover from which I just quoted, but it is a fairly accurate description nonetheless. When people ask me what my column is about, I reply, “Oh, you know… nothing much. Popular culture, I guess. Can we talk about something else?”

Bohjalian worked for an advertising agency in New York City until a life-threatening encounter with a crazed Brooklyn taxi driver in 1987 convinced him and his wife to flee the city for the pastoral embrace of Lincoln, Vt.—loosely the plot of the 1987 Diane Keaton comedy “Baby Boom,” coincidentally. (1987 was also the year I was born.)

Having written for the Burlington Free Press for something like a quarter of a century now, Bohjalian doesn’t play up the city-slicker-in-the-country angle too hard, but it probably helped that he began with a recognizable premise, where readers knew what to expect and could go from there.

His columns are well-written, neighborly, casual, lightly humorous in a mildly folksy vein, and charmingly modest: the work of a committed and affectionate husband and father, a competent homeowner, a compassionate common-sense liberal, a reasonably fit cyclist, and a man who appears to have conquered his personal demons (though he would still be sympathetic to yours) to such a degree that all that remains is to enjoy the small things of life, be a decent citizen, and observe the world with the care and love it deserves. In short, it is a fantasy: a fantasy that Chris Bohjalian—a regular, down-to-earth Vermonter who just happens to be an internationally successful author of Jodi Picoult-like realistic mainstream fiction focusing on hot-button contemporary issues, driven equally by plot and character—appears to be living for real.

Here are five things that Chris Bohjalian does in his column that I don’t do in mine: 1) he offers anecdotes from his personal and family life; 2) he covers lovable community events such as the Fourth of July Outhouse Race in Bristol; 3) he interviews local people who are working to create positive change in Vermont; 4) he reminisces about his beloved, deceased aunt; and 5) he writes about the merits of eggnog even when it’s summertime.

When I first started writing “Generation Y,” I made some attempts to be folksy and relatable that I think backfired because in fact I was a vaguely pretentious 20-year-old know-nothing, and it showed through. Let those who wish I were more Bohjalian-like know, however, that I too await the day when the facts of my life will begin to emit the sort of cozy, familial warmth in which nostalgic readers surrounded by their loving families might want to bask for a moment during the pleasure of their daily lives—a place from which pleasing anecdotes will regularly emerge like warm apple pies from a well-used yet still reliable oven.

Yet, to be honest, I’m not totally sure that will ever happen to me.

In all my life I have never produced a usable anecdote, and I’m not sure why I’d start. If the point of a newspaper column is human companionship, well—there are different kinds of humans out there, and not all of them are so insistently down-to-earth.

Am I really too pretentious, or is Chris Bohjalian not pretentious enough?

By Brett Yates

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