But oh how the local details can travel, so to speak. During the Watergate party in Scandals, a PR man offers boozy insights about local subway etiquette on the Metro—“left-steppers” vs. “right-steppers” and “parkers,” and the sociology of it all. But you could live in New York or Moscow and understand the nuances even if the etiquette isn’t the same.
“Local” works for me as a reader, too. I’ve just finished Pat Conroy’s South of Broad, a tribune to his home town of Charleston, S.C. (that’s Alexandria, however, to the left). Somehow I felt better about the novel and the people in it when I saw not just a bunch of street names but also detailed, heartfelt descriptions of, say, the area near a seawall, or the porpoises swimming in the water nearby. I can’t help but admire Conroy’s sense of place. Dickens had it, too, with his descriptions of the foul London fog in Bleak House—the perfect metaphor, some would say, for the British legal system. Sinclair Lewis, a not-so-in-vogue favorite of mine, created memorable descriptions of the American Midwest.
I generally dislike books where the setting sounds generic, or where the details tend to be accurate but still wrong. In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown does not err in giving the dimensions of the U.S. Capitol—I’d just like more than numbers to help me connect with the people inside. Pat Conroy can always accommodate me with the right local details; Brown so often can’t.
An offer: If you buy Scandals and are puzzled about a Washington-related detail, just email me, and I’ll explain it. I may even turn my reply into a post for this site, with credit to you for the question if you want me to mention you by name. Meanwhile if you have books you’d like to recommend, based on their strong sense of place, feel free to do so.