- Wish You Were Here: Love and Longing in an American Heartland by Zachary Michael Jack
Zachary Michael Jack has crafted a compelling and unlikely collection of essays that deal with the intricacies of living as a seventh-generation male in the remote rurality of eastern Iowa. Jack refuses to shy away from difficult concepts such as the struggles of dating, the excitement of politics, and his ancestral roots. Throughout these essays are several common threads, but the most salient one is the author's paradoxical longing for a place which, despite its loneliness and challenges, he nonetheless loves and does not wish to leave. Jack cultivates a voice that engages the reader in a come-here-go-away dance; the narrator both yearns for others to understand and even join him in this remote area, while at the same time praising this region for its isolation.
Wish You Were Here contains interviews with other younger farm-dwellers, research into the author's familial background, and more intimate vignettes of Jack's personal life, including the complications of modern dating. This thread of love, longing, and impossibility is once again investigated throughout these essays as the author searches for love. Jack possesses an admirable willingness to be vulnerable and take an unflinching look at himself, the [End Page 323] landscape that surrounds him, and his sparse romantic prospects. One can feel the longing, loneliness, and heartache in "Digital Divides," one of the most compelling essays of the collection, in which the author describes his online dating experience.
Jack reveals that after much cajoling from his friends to create an online dating profile, he finds himself both hopeful and cynical: "The Internet has practically become a love-lifeline, my urban friends convince me, with a missionary zeal in their voices" (113). Championing this narrator becomes easy as Jack candidly describes how remote rural living has led to "years of fitful celibacy" (113), and displays an admirable willingness to be vulnerable, both in his memoir and his life. After briefly dating a woman who lives in Chicago, however, her phobia of open spaces and the author's devotion to his rural life become an increasingly impenetrable barrier, so that the collection interrogates the paradox behind its title. The author craves love and intimacy, yet on the other hand, he has worked to maintain his beloved pastoral life, so the reader is left in as much of a state of yearning as the memoirist himself. We do not want Jack to leave his home, either, but we do wish that special someone will show up there.
Throughout these self-revealing moments, though, occasionally there are some problematic terms used, not by the author, but by one of his hometown predecessors, Osha Gray Davidson. Although Jack somewhat implies that this term is problematic in his subsequent conversation with Davidson, he never directly states his reaction to this term. When Davidson refers repeatedly to the open prairie as a "rural ghetto," he appropriates an equally problematic phrase that has traditionally been used to define urban communities of color. This is a risky undertaking for Davidson; it is unwieldy to equate a white-dominated Great Plains countryside using slang that has historically defined an urban working-class minority community. The notion of Davidson's comparing two disparate cultures is inexact at best. As a reader, I wanted to see Jack's position more viscerally.
In its entirety, Wish You Were Here proves to be a poetic, well written, and honest examination of both the self and the Great Plains landscape. The author provides a multifaceted view of a terrain that he refuses to completely laud or dismiss; rather, he dwells within the paradox between love and yearning, because to Jack, they are inextricably linked.
University of Nebraska–Lincoln