Armchair Traveler: David Mamet

'South of the Northeast Kingdom,' An Outsider's View of Vermont

Listen: Reading a passage from 'South of the Northeast Kingdom,' filmmaker David Mamet describes a different kind of shooting.

'South of the Northeast Kingdom' book cover

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David Mamet

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David Mamet, the writer of gritty dramas like Glengarry Glen Ross and Heist, first went to Vermont at the age of 17, and fell in love with the place. "I'd never seen mountains before. I was from Chicago and all of a sudden there was the most beautiful countryside in the world, and there I was... It's gorgeous and peaceful."

Mamet has written South of the Northeast Kingdom, a book that he describes as "an homage, I hope a piece of gratitude" to Vermont. "A couple of weeks over there would have been heaven. I've spent most of 40 years there."

It's not Mamet's first literary visit to the Green Mountain State. His first book, The Village took place in Vermont, as did his 1991 movie State and Main, about making a movie in a small New England town.

He has lived in Vermont for 40 years, but the filmmaker and playwright says he's still a relative outsider. "The old joke has the guy come down to the country store and say, 'You know, I'm from down country — I'm not a Vermonter, but at least my kids were Vermonters. They were born here. And the old-time Vermonter says, 'Well, they aren't Vermonters even though they were born here.' The guy says, 'How come?' The Vermonter says, 'Well, if your cat crawled into the oven and had kittens, would you call them muffins?'"

"So that's a very, very old culture in Vermont. Those people have been there since the 17th century, so they're adapted to the land and to each other. And so people come up and they say, 'Wonderful, let me just sit in the cabin and read books and I guess I'm just like you,' and one isn't. One can just admire and be grateful."

Below is an excerpt from Mamet's South of the Northeast Kingdom, which is part of the National Geographic "Directions" series of literary travel books:

Book Excerpt

Visiting is a big thing in my community in Vermont. The life is very social, and we tend to find ourselves at one another's houses several nights a week. Well, we have been together, many of us, for forty years. We have lived through various marriages, divorces, deaths, births, inspired abortive business ventures, and, more to the point, we just get a kick out of each other. New Year's Day at Anita's, Thanksgiving at Roy's house.

Our community, in the main, is Jewish.

Q: Are we Jews clannish?

A: Yes.

The term, of course, carries more than a whiff of opprobrium. It is, perhaps, even racially derogatory—first, generalizing a behavior from the practice of some members of a group, and then pejoratizing it. But, yes, we are clannish. Perhaps some Jews are not clannish, but then I wouldn't know them, would I?

My friends include Howard and Jane, writers; Anita, as mentioned before, who got out of Poland in September 1939; Andy, her cousin and my longtime poker companion, a writer and worker with the blind; Rick and Rhea, Rhea is a writer and Rick works for the State Office of Prisoners' Rights; Charlotte the potter; Steve Bronstein the blacksmith and his wife, Sandy, an attorney; Jules and Helen, the bakers; the Belenkeys, manufacturers of children's clothes (zutanos).

We visit one another, and meet, in the meantime, at Rainbow Sweets in Marshfield. Rainbow's was founded by Bill and Trish and Connie twenty-six years ago. It sits on Route 2 and offers homemade and elaborate pastries, and café food. Friday and Saturday night are pizza nights. Bill and Trish (Connie left to become a private investigator) put their girls through college (Oberlin and Macalester) selling pastries on Route 2.

Newborn kids on the way home from the hospital, traditionally, are taken to Rainbow's to be shown around and weighed on the pastry scale. (Three of my four kids were.)

Sunday mornings there are cherry cheese Danish pastries, and it is a good idea to call ahead for them the night before.

What a joy. Come in for coffee: "Howard been in?... Rick been in?..." And so and so, traveling, will call on Friday night from L.A., Paris, Cincinnati, just to make an appearance.

A lot of writers come to Rainbow's. Louise Gluck used to live nearby, and copies of two of her poems hang on the walls. Grace Paley has been known to come in, Howard Norman and Jane Shore, Joyce Johnston, and I, as above, are more than regulars. Pizza night, a couple of years ago, I looked around and, moved to speech, said, "I love our Jewish community," to which several responded, "What Jewish community?" But as they say, "Two Jews, three opinions."

Jewish or not, it is a wonderful community to have been a part of. For the week after my daughter's birth, a basket appeared at our door each night at dinnertime. It held dinner for two and a bottle of wine. We have been living out of each other's kitchens for decades now — one of the great gifts of Vermont.

From South of the Northeast Kingdom by David Mamet, copyright National Geographic Society

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