Wisconsin haunts me. I resided in the state through my formative years and its attitudes and pageants and undulations of mind have lived in me like tapeworms ever since. I know the place. I know its people.
When I meet them in New York we speak to each other in a shared language, flatly accented with unspoken knowledge. Like survivors, we see through each other to Wisconsin’s fields of alfalfa and corn, its corrals of dairy cows, its pastures with their electric wire fences, the sweet fermented fragrance of cow manure that’s everywhere, always, even in winter, and that we love as mice love the cheese on a baited trap. We see Door County and its air of countrified gentility. We see the steel-gray water of Lake Michigan, lapping feebly at the pebble shore. We see the wilds of Wisconsin’s great north woods and the grids of pine that have been planted to replace the acres and acres that have been clear-cut. We see Chief Oshkosh in his bowler hat and Laura Ingalls Wilder making maple sugar candy in the snow. We see brats and fried cheese curds and the virtues of vocational binge drinking.
Behind this nostalgia lurks the anxiety that we might evoke in each other the reasons we left. We see the nihilism common to the landlocked states of the upper Midwest and the particular variant strain found in Wisconsin—the brutishness of the German, the depressed stoicism of the Swede, the worst of both cultures mixing together through the generations, creating a new, constipated society that hates to learn and rejects all it doesn’t know. We see Ed Gein. We see Jeffrey Dahmer. Wisconsin Death Trip. Faces of Death.
We see all the ways a child of Wisconsin can go wrong trying to survive the long subzero nights of winter and all the ways he’s told he’s gone wrong when he’s gone right.
* * *
Wisconsin thrives on stasis. It survives by freezing out people it doesn’t like, and being Wisconsin, that includes most people. A 19th century tribalism prevails.
In Fond du Lac, the town I grew up in, people were so suspicious of the corrupting influence of outsiders that a Greek family moving to town caused controversy. Graffiti showed up under bridges and everyone just knew the Greeks must have done it. This was a family of five and none of the children was older than ten. People whispered about rising crime on the south side of town, how the Greeks had opened the door for a mass migration of frightening Latin Kings from Chicago. When I was in fourth grade, the science teacher gave us a crash course in genetics, the takeaway being that if you married a black person, you might still, luckily, end up with white babies, but one day, maybe generations later, a little black child would be born and everyone would be upset and no one would know where it came from. She was seen as enlightened for this lesson, celebrated for facing the issue directly and frankly. Including me, there were five and a half Jews in town. People put up with us, but they didn’t trust us. They were always complaining about how we might Jew them.
These weren’t the nice, friendly Midwestern folk of yore. These were large, pale, farting, snowmobile-suit wearing Visigoths, and if you differed from them even slightly, they might wave and say a polite hello in that welcoming way for which their tribe is notorious, but they kept a secret inventory of all the ways you might corrupt their children. Despite their placid, soft-spoken good manners, they scorned you, something you might not realize until you tried to get a loan for your small business, or move up in your job, or choose a tent-mate for your Boy Scout camping trip.
Running counter to all this, a history of early and important progressivism and commitment to social justice crisscrosses the state like derelict railroad tracks. In town after town you can tour old houses that still have the trap doors and hidden cell-like room where escaped slaves found solace on their way to the Canadian border. Back when the Republican Party was on the side of the righteous, it got its start in the small town of Ripon. In the early years of the 20th century, the great progressive senator Robert LaFollette led the anti-monopolist, anti-corporate brigades to the edge of socialist workers revolt, setting an early precedent for the (usually Midwestern) politicians—from Adlai Stevenson to Eugene McCarthy to Paul Wellstone and Sherrod Brown—who in the decades to come would fight increasingly losing battles against the company store.
This spirit still lives in the people of Wisconsin—certain people, who are ever conscious of their uncomfortable relationship to the closed-minded ethos of the society in which they find themselves. You see it in the student revolts of the 1960s when anti-Vietnam War protesters threw bags of their own shit at the cops. You see it in the 2011 repeal Scott Walker demonstrations two years ago—the sudden eruption of pro-union workers’-rights vitriol that led to a two-month occupation of the capitol building and in some ways inspired Occupy Wall Street.
But still, Scott Walker won his recall election. The Ayn Rand-loving boys of the Wisconsin countryside rallied on election day and slapped down the calls for an open society just as their ancestors did in 1912 when they tried to assassinate Teddy Roosevelt while he gave a speech in Milwaukee advocating workers’ rights and government regulation of industry. The Joe McCarthy wing of Wisconsin politics squashed out the opposition yet again.
These political fault lines have their cultural analogues. The progressive spirit’s legacy shows up in the people—some of them, usually the ones who yearn to leave, or if they can’t leave, to carve a space for difference into the hills—as a radical oddness. Like so many other dead or dying things, it haunts the land and lives in the shadows of Wisconsin’s prized and threatening Normalcy. You see it in the indecipherable logic of The House on the Rock—the glass-floored room jutting out over a cliff; the carousel room with its thousands of nicked and cracked mythological creatures impaled on poles and riding up the walls; the sense that there’s a pattern and a meaning to all this but no matter how you try, you’ll never access it. Or you see it in the pride Packers season ticket holders take in the certificate stating their shares in the team—they’re not just fans, they’re owners, like everyone else, and their team’s not dependent on some corporate oligarch; it belongs, collectively, to the people, as it should. You see this radical oddness in Wisconsin’s most famous bands—The Violent Femmes, Sebadoh, Garbage. You see it in Mark Borchardt, the mulleted beanpole whose attempts to make a horror flick with no money, no technical knowledge, and apparently, no talent, were documented in the great artifact of Wisconsinia, American Movie.
It exists in me.
And it was strong in Paulie Heenan as well.
* * *
As a kid growing up in Oregon, Wisconsin, Paulie was a band geek. The tuba and trombone and tympani sort. An orchestra geek, really. Circling around the internet there’s a photo of him posed with the other band geeks from Oregon High School, all baby skin and insecure smile, his hair center-parted and helmet-headed in a Ralph Macchio way that only a kid from the clueless Midwest would find anything less than embarrassing. By the time he was in his early twenties, he’d transformed himself into a different kind of band geek—he’d joined a rock band, a few rock bands: Solid Gold, Monovox. He’d taught himself how to tear a computer apart and rebuild it better in his own image. He’d combined his musical talents with his bizarrely well-developed aptitude for electronics (they were just like cars to him, or the pipes in a creaky house, or that train set waiting to be erected in the basement) and built a reputation as one of the best recording engineers in Madison.
By the time I met him, Paulie was living in New York, working at the Apple Store—which, in a way that struck me as indelibly Wisconsin, was more a vocational means for him to give discounts to his friends than anything approximating a career choice. He was dating my student Mae Saslaw, a supremely odd, radical young woman who was masquerading as a writing student at the Pratt Institute while she developed her theories relating to the numerology of freedom, the illusion of capital, the computer as solution to the problem of itself, the notion that math, not narrative or myth, is the most powerful tool available to the oppressed. They were scrawny. Together, they were scrappy. They had a wiry energy about them that matched their bony bodies. A couple of stray dogs slouching in faded T-shirts, ready to bark and growl and futilely fight back if you fucked with them, but generally docile, playful, devoted to their pack. Paulie’s hair puffed from his head like a dandelion gone to seed. Mae’s, though the same length and the same general cut, hung in mussed waves just above her shoulders. They seemed, for a while, like variations of the same story.
Paulie had reinvented himself as a kind of punk rock cyber guru. He lived in Brooklyn, and looked the part. But Wisconsin haunted him, as is its way.
Rebuilding your computer from scratch for the third time, he’d refuse payment. “Pay me in meat,” he’d say with a demented grin, an echo of the barter system that so much of Wisconsin society is based on: my help picking your rocks or bailing your hay, or getting your daughter out of jail yet again, for five and a half pounds of your homemade venison sausage. He had old-fashioned values, in a way. Solid, Midwestern values. Unpretentious—or no, anti-pretentious. Protect your clan. Take care of your own. Tough out the hard times and get over yourself.
Mae, an artist with an artistic nature, prone to panicked obsession, often lost in her own head, found that he knew just how to keep her from self-combusting. They got married. They worked together fixing the computers of clueless, rich Manhattanites. For a while they were happy, in love.
But the longer Paulie stayed in New York, the stronger the tug of Wisconsin became. Though he appreciated, and mostly agreed with, Mae’s criticism of the corporate-capitalistic state and the role that art might play in combating it, he distrusted the corrupting personal ambition that inflected her arty friends’ discussions. All that posing. All those assholes whose only real conviction was that the world should be in awe of their brilliance. By his lights, if you wanted to do something, you did it. You didn’t just talk about how it fit into this or that trendy –ism. The striving and self-important intellectual posturing that defined every social transaction in New York gradually became intolerable to him.
And for the good of their marriage, Mae didn’t protest when they distanced themselves from her friends. They holed up in their apartment. They got a dog.
Mae struggled to turn herself into a homemaker, to recreate the dynamics of family life that a childhood in the Midwest had taught Paulie to expect. She tried to embrace Paulie’s longing for Wisconsin. Like so many people in their early twenties, she gave in to a version of growing up that demanded she choose between her artistic and intellectual ambitions and the coercive economics of food and shelter, the costs of time and attention that love required of her. The illusion of capital, she discovered, was harder to resist when doing so might put her marriage at stake. She could still roll out her theories about the politics of fonts and the ominous implications of the cloud, she could still hold forth on the math of English grammar and the coercive relationship between sloppy sentences and individual freedom, but increasingly these rants felt like rehearsed monologues, riffs that she’d developed long ago, their urgency depleted. She tried not to notice that she no longer wrote the manifestos she once did. Instead she made crab dip and apple pies that she photographed and posted to Facebook. The closest she came to true engagement with the ideas—nay, the ethics—that had once consumed her was to reread Infinite Jest for the nth time and to get Thomas Pynchon’s rocket bomb tattooed on her forearm.
Denying herself, she worried about Paulie. By the end of their time in New York, his self-worth—his entire sense of self, it seemed—vacillated with the Green Bay Packers win-loss record.
And finally, in the summer of 2012, Wisconsin overwhelmed him. It called him home. To justify this to Mae, he concocted a plan, a justification, through which they’d put her idealism to the test. No more words. No more posturing. They’d disappear into the great northern woods, take themselves off the grid like Ted Kaczynski and slip free of the flytrap that they both understood the entirety of contemporary society to be. Mae agreed to go with him, but I think she already knew that this move signified the end of their lives together. Instead of storehousing nonperishable food and pimping up their tent for long-haul living, they languished at his parents house drinking beer and wolfing down cheddar-wurst, driving back and forth to Madison, thirty miles away, to nostalgically revisit his old haunts, pal around with his old friends, and reintegrate themselves into the go-nowhere culture he’d moved to New York to get away from.
Three months later, they separated. Mae went to Portland. Paulie kept the dog.
* * *
Wisconsin would end up rejecting Paulie a second time. Like so many of this country’s landlocked and rural states, Wisconsin has an ass-backward relationship to what culture is and what culture is for. To aspire to more than a perpetuation of the god-fearing family unit—church on Sunday morning, a wife, two kids, the same job as your dad had, the cycle of life—is to betray your own tribe. Curiosity of any kind is seen as suspect. It’s not a question of your being uppity. The attitude is more like, “Why would you need to know more than the simple truths that have sustained us for generations? Why would you want anything other than what is?”
If this attitude makes you feel claustrophobic, the most you can hope for—without fleeing the state and its people forever—is to go where Paulie went, to Madison, Wisconsin’s liberal Mecca, where, safely protected by the city’s aura of progressive acceptance (or despicable hedonism, depending on which side of the fault line you fall), you might be able to create your own cool. Or at least take part in the cool already there in Madison. It’s a cool town, one of the coolest, so cool, in fact, that even the cow tippers and frat boys and cheese-headed lugs the radical oddballs flee there to escape migrate down periodically for the better drugs and the rock and roll and the possibility of sex with drunk college girls.
On Friday, Saturday nights Madison roils with bombed-out-of-their-minds guys in Badgers gear spilling out of the bars on State Street and the house parties in the streets that ring the UW campus. These aren’t the radically odd. They’re not odd at all. They’re the youth of Wisconsin here to party for four years at the country’s most celebrated party school before returning home with nothing but their livers changed.
But sometimes these guys stay. They go undercover.