Virginia Beach is the best explanation I can offer; the best possible seedbed for that wonderful and volcanic sensibility I call the “American Baroque.” Sloppy jungle puttputt courses and waterparks with ten-story styrofoam gorillas. Playgrounds in lead paint and plastic overlooking abandoned naval bunkers. 24/7 stripmalls linking 24/7 stripmalls, overhappy with doorprizes, moonbounces, and small children dressed as cowboys. Boardwalk vendors palming off inflatable souvenirs and sea creatures trapped in Lucite. Thriftstore treasuretroves filled with the remnants of ridiculous lives lived out in complete earnest. Surf and skate shops filling the air with the gummy, edible scent of fresh stickers and urethane. Countless ruins from doomed flagship projects, such as the Museum of Virginia Sports History and the space-age naval museum, Nauticus. And, just as backup, six adjacent cities— Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Hampton, Suffolk, and Newport News— teaming with the same weird, pinball chaos. It is the subconscious of America splayed open for the cameras.
It’s not the kind of area that is very compatible with high seriousness, or self-seriousness, or any stripe of seriousness for that matter. Very few priestly high-modernists come out of Hampton Roads. You get, instead, a whole assault wave of manic, young, genius-brats, who immediately upon their highschool graduation quickly move on to pester citizens the globe over. It’s a great place to grow up, like I’ve said, but most of the folks who stay on usually like fighting, sailing, or some dangerous mixture of the two.
In 1970, some inspired cokehead on the Virginia Beach city council dreamt up the idea of covering a landfill with a billion tons of earth and sod and christening it as the first and only mountain in the greater Hampton Roads area, Mount Trashmore. His vision proudly stands today— stippled with playgrounds, skateparks, fake lakes, coke machines, rednecks wearing Oakleys, monuments, and litter— and has become, to my mind, a fitting emblem of just the sort of redemption you can expect from Southern Virginian genius. The ability to make that incredibly small step from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Ascend to the peak of Trashmore on a clear summer evening and you get, not only a commanding view of highway 264, but also a pretty good vista of a young, insane, American culture coming to terms with its own meaning. It does this, not by getting in touch with something real and reverently ancient, but by working with all the crap immediately at hand: fun, fakeness, radness, manmadeness, excess, overload, overexaggeration, preplanned obsolescence, and Gumby. It’s the sort of generation that, having been raised among animatronic elves and snowmen, never fully bought into the Western myth of disenchantment.
I’e heard it before and it’s true: Virginia Beach is filled with weirdballs. I think that my entire life, I’ve always just thought of it as “democratic genius.” And I stand by the idea that, maybe one day, this chorus of weirdballs, call it Virginia Beach or call it the United States of America, will eventually synchronize and start makign a new kind of sense, something worthwhile to call our own. A veritable American mythos.