Boom Town Explodes the Notion of ‘Flyover’ Territory

Sam Anderson’s ambitious new book about Oklahoma City reanimates a place that has too often been portrayed as simplistic.

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It has long been a common refrain among American writers out West that New York publishers are impervious to anything outside New York. The acclaimed Nebraska author Mari Sandoz, for example, whose book Old Jules won The Atlantic’s nonfiction book prize in 1935, frequently bemoaned what she called the “intellectual and cultural dictatorship … foisted upon us the day the first malcontent crossed the Alleghenies.” Likewise, Sherwood Anderson (best known for his short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio) tired of New Yorkers who “think the United States ends at Pittsburgh and believe there’s nothing but desert and a few Indians and Hollywood on the other side.” These writers were lamenting the sort of mind-set that the acerbic H. L. Mencken modeled when he dismissed Willa Cather: “I don’t care how well she writes. I don’t give a damn what happens in Nebraska.”

Implicit in dismissals like Mencken’s is the notion that what happens in Middle America should stay in Middle America—that what entertains or illuminates in so-called flyover country couldn’t possibly matter elsewhere. Certainly New York and Los Angeles bear their own stereotypes, but those are nullified (or at least outweighed) by millions of contrary voices, as well as a media industry located in their backyard. Meanwhile, the center of the country, burdened by decades of crude portrayals, remains a vague concept to so many who live beyond it.

It’s perhaps ironic, then, that a New York–based author should write one of the more exciting new profiles of a Plains city in recent memory. Sam Anderson opens his book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis with an epigraph that quotes the poet John Ashbery: “Some things are simultaneously too boring and too exciting to write about.” This understanding of contradiction sets Anderson, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, on a winning course in his biography of Oklahoma’s capital city. What could have easily devolved into a bone-dry academic text instead surfaces as an animated Plains epic that complicates the popular notion of a supposedly stale place. “From a distance, Oklahoma City looked like almost nothing,” Anderson writes. “Up close, it turned out to be about almost everything.”

In the summer of 2012, Anderson lit out to cover the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, which “had evolved,” he notes, “with almost unbelievable speed, from a morally tainted laughingstock to one of the most powerful collections of talent in sports.” But like many of the best sports stories, Anderson’s deconstruction of the rise and fall and ultimate plateau of the Thunder has less to do with sports than with character—and Oklahoma City, Boom Town explains, is brimming with character. Anderson spent the next several years chasing “a mysterious inner needle,” leapfrogging from one local fixture to the next in a hunt for the meaning of what he calls “the great minor city of America.”

Over the course of 400 pages, Boom Town maneuvers between the past and the present; between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Oklahoma City bombing; between Red Kelley, “the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James,” and Gary England, a locally worshipped meteorologist; between Stanley Draper, sometimes referred to as Mr. Chamber of Commerce, who seemed to single-handedly reshape the city, and the Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, whom Anderson describes as “the city’s most famous goofball clown ... a Technicolor rock ’n’ roll Willy Wonka.”

Each of these threads progresses chronologically within its own chapter (with Anderson’s Thunder reportage serving as the contemporary anchor), though the chapters themselves are more haphazardly organized. Thus Boom Town begins in the present, rewinds to the late 19th century, jumps ahead to the 1960s, and rolls back again to 1889—pinballing from one era and one character to the next, an effect that his publisher called “kaleidoscopic” and that Kirkus Reviews called “challenging.”

In a way, both labels are accurate. At the start, there’s a certain whiplash feel to Boom Town. But the further that one reads, the less disparate each thread feels, until finally a theme develops and the reader begins hunting for it in the smallest details. Save for rare moments of broader analysis, Anderson himself serves as little more than a vehicle to move the audience from one setting to the next, tracing everything back to the Land Run of 1889 and the city’s feverish beginnings: “I found myself formulating, over the course of many months, a question that seemed to be, on multiple levels, the key to the entire place,” he writes. “Is it possible to control an explosion?”

Though Anderson’s empathy for Oklahoma City shines through, Boom Town isn’t a work of boosterism. The author refuses to skip over or whitewash the more unfortunate episodes of the city’s past. Anderson gives ample space to the local civil-rights hero Clara Luper and the relentless backlash she and other African Americans endured during their sit-in campaigns in the ’60s. The book also explores how Oklahoma City—under the guise of “urban renewal”—has since corralled many of its black citizens into “islands” on the East Side, segregated by freeways and giant corporate parking lots. Anderson also unpacks the formation of the “Indian Territory” in the late 19th century: how tribes from all over North America were physically marched into present-day Oklahoma, and how even that last vestige of freedom for the Creek and Seminole Indians—2 million acres of land—was later reassigned to the white settlers.

Elsewhere in Boom Town, Anderson meticulously maps the physical outlines of the city—the largest in the world by size (in the early ’60s) at more than 600 square miles—and how key administrators shaped a skyline and later tore it down, one excruciating demolition at a time. In another especially poignant episode, Anderson details the city’s courting of United Airlines. Ultimately, the multibillion-dollar company chose to build a new repair facility in Indianapolis, unwilling to subject its workers to Oklahoma City despite lavish corporate incentives.* “United could not imagine making its employees live there,” Anderson writes. “Indianapolis had NBA basketball, NFL football, public transportation, a downtown canal, and renovated old buildings with shops and restaurants and hotels. Oklahoma City had a dry riverbed and a blasted vacant downtown and empty restaurants.” By rolling this loss into the narrative, Anderson allows the airline to serve, however briefly, as the opposition, embodying a mentality that the city has long struggled against.

Every city, every town, has an epic tale, but it can be hard to locate a through line, the tissue connecting every major figure, historical event, and local affair. Writers and critics sometimes talk of place as a character itself, referring to some hazy sense that setting plays a crucial role in a story. In Boom Town, that character is squarely in the crosshairs. Oklahoma City, “one of the great weirdo cities of the world,” is Anderson’s protagonist, and the elements he chooses to include all build on the notion that “in its excesses, its imbalances, its illusions, its overcorrections, its lunges of pride and insecurity, its tragedies, and its improbable achievements, [Oklahoma City] says something deeper about the nature of cities, about human togetherness, than a more well-rounded or traditional city ever could.”

In one early and particularly hypnotic chapter, Anderson chronicles the infamous Land Run of April 22, 1889, authorized by President Benjamin Harrison. When the bugle sounded at noon, settlers raced in to fill the “Unassigned Lands,” formerly the Indian Territory. That night, after the chaos had temporarily calmed and the campfires had lit up, a voice carried over the new settlement: “Oh, Joe! Here’s your mule!” Surely the initial announcement was practical, but then someone else repeated it. And another, until the whole encampment—ensnared in some odd social phenomenon—was shouting the nonsense together. “The place was so new and precarious, so strange,” Anderson writes of the incident, “that its residents had to shock themselves into community using whatever method they could find—the way a human body, freezing to death, tries to generate its own heat by shivering.” That interpretation is indicative not just of Anderson’s skill as a writer, but also of the level of detail he’s culled from countless hours of research and reportage.

One might assume that spotlighting certain less-than-honorable affairs could spell further trouble for a city that seems to be constantly defending itself. And yet, I haven’t read a nonfiction book that has made me yearn so strongly to visit an American city since John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which employs a similarly large and eccentric cast of local figures to portray Savannah, Georgia. Tourism bureaus in states like Oklahoma and North Dakota and my home state of Nebraska—places too often generalized as entirely rural and artless—should perhaps concern themselves less with the illusion of perfection than with the taint of simplicity and bald cheerleading. It can be easy for such institutions to forget that, unless one is aiming for comic appeal, in the words of the novelist E. M. Forster, a “flat character is apt to be a bore” and a truly “round” or complex character must be “capable of surprising in a convincing way.”

Simply put, Anderson unflattens Oklahoma City and reshapes it using its own facts and its own characters. Certain Oklahomans might read Boom Town and wish that an author with deeper ties to the city had written it, maybe someone whose perspective could have fermented over a period of decades rather than months or years, or someone more invested in the city’s future. There is certainly room for different or competing narratives to coexist, and if Anderson’s is the outsider version, it’s nonetheless a valuable one. As Steve Lackmeyer, a columnist for The Oklahoman, recently wrote in a glowing review of the book, “Oklahoma City has never quite mastered how to tell its story.” Boom Town may not be a definitive text—save that for the historians—but it’s a significant update, one that exchanges the dusty pop-cultural clichés of a “flyover” city for the spark of a sincerely enlightening place.

* This article originally stated that United Airlines chose to build its headquarters, rather than a repair facility, in Indianapolis.