Anxious People Another Fredrik Backman Delight


Anxious People (2020)

By Fredrik Backman

Atria Books, 336 pages.





This is a story about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is.


Who, other than Fredrik Backman, could write such words without irony? From the time A Man Called Ove was translated into English in 2013, to his latest, Anxious People, he has been unparalleled in his ability to make us see profundity in simple things while making us laugh at idiots. The joke, of course, is on us. The content of Anxious People is encapsulated in its title, though Backman could have easily subtitled it “A Cross-Section of Humanity.”


What’s it about? It’s about a man standing on a bridge, though Backman encourages us to, “Think about something nicer. Think about cookies.” It’s about a bank robbery and a slogan-spouting realtor. Plus, a hostage crisis, bumbling small-city cops, hostile witnesses, and how “Stockholmer” is code for everything from pushiness to gayness. It’s about how, “We lie to those we love.” And a whole lot more, including “truth,” a word that needs to be enclosed by quotation marks.


The skinny is that someone who never planned to rob a bank is pushed to levels of desperation so deep that this individual ends up trying to stick up a cashless outlet. To compound matters, the bank robber blunders into taking hostages because, well… it’s complicated. To add further confusion, none of the hostages recall much of anything specific about the about the robber or the experience of being a hostage. And what a collection of “victims” they are.


London was the bank teller in question, though she is filled more with attitude than answers. The realtor showing the apartment where the hostages were taken is even less useful, except to opine that the robber’s gun was a toy. And these are the good witnesses!


Add to the mix a nasty misanthropic female investment banker, a retired couple who go to apartment showings and badmouth the properties so they can pick them up cheaply and flip them, a lesbian couple about to have a baby but seem to have nothing in common, a surprise interloper who locks himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and an 87-year-old woman who is akin to a storybook grandmother. Try getting useful information from that lot.


The novel’s post-release interviews are hysterical and the reaction of the father/son police team trying to crack the case is a close second on the laugh scale. (Who sends pizza to a hostage taker?) This is a whodunit in which not even the victims seem to know or care who did it. They’re not even sure what “it” was. One of the mysteries is what happened to the realtor when the bank robber was waving a gun? (No, she wasn’t the gunman!) Why even tell us about a man on a bridge, an episode that occurred a decade earlier?


If you know anything about Backman, you know that his surfaces are set ups for deeper things lurking inside human psyches. That’s why he titled this book Anxious People. You also know that Backman is not a misanthrope; he loves people despite their mistakes, sticks, foibles, and flummoxes. Nor is he afraid to count himself among the “idiots.” Several moving things will happen in Anxious People before all is resolved, and I doubt very much you will anticipate them.


The previous paragraph suggests something that’s very special about Fredrik Backman. All writing is difficult, which is why most mysteries are either Pink Panther-like farces, or as hardboiled as Robert Parker’s head. Some in the latter vein contain wisecracks and snaps, but how many mysteries have you read that rocket you from disgust to empathy to gales of laughter to moist-eyed emotional release? Who else writes about the gun-toting hostage-takers and makes you feel uplifted by the tale? If you surmise from all of this that I am one of Backman’s biggest fans, I wouldn’t exactly call you Sherlock Holmes Junior, but you’re right. Anxious People is Backman’s eighth full-length novel, and in my estimation seven of them or literary gems. I anxiously await his ninth.


Rob Weir



Border Tales Part Two


Why Borders are Useless


For these border tales sagas I used pseudonyms to protect the identities of informants. They can out themselves if they wish! 


James grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts on the border with New Hampshire. Two large public beaches were nearby, Salisbury Beach, MA and Hampton Beach, NH. It wasn’t much of a choice for a young man. Salisbury had broad sands and nature reserves, but Hampton had glitz and nightlife. Plus, as James recalled, New Hampshire had “cheaper beer and they sold it on Sundays.”


Carrie lives in New Hampshire and doesn’t appreciate how it’s a playground for Bay Staters: “Every Friday afternoon… I-93 North is like a parking lot for all the people trying to escape the confines of Massachusetts. It goes on for miles and hours.” Holiday weekends are “worse,” and she wonders why all of those involved in the constant “exodus” don’t just move. The flip side can be found in perennial Boston Globe rants about New Hampshire residents commuting into Boston for work but skipping out of Massachusetts taxes.


Jenny lives in Vermont but crosses into New Hampshire to go shopping. She notes, “There’s no sales tax … but we go there mainly because there are more stores.” She also adds that the COVID pandemic complicates matters. “Both states let us go back and forth because out infection rates are low, but Vermont requires us to bring our own bags but New Hampshire didn’t allow it.”  (It’s now okay.)


Janine had a different take. She and her ex-husband had three children and gravitated from the Greater Boston area to Winchester, New Hampshire. For a time, her husband commuted into Boston “but when it came time for the oldest of our three kids to start grade school… we knew that we had to move to Northfield, MA.” In her words, it was “just over the border and a world away.” 


As a teenager, Christine lived in New York State on the Pennsylvania line. She noticed that Pennsylvania “had no sales tax on clothing, sold fireworks… and the first day of deer season was a school holiday.”


The above stories fall into the category of old state rivalries that have mellowed over time. For instance, Vermont and New Hampshire once had very different politics, even when both were Republican states. New Hampshire Republicans had a decidedly rightwing tinge, while the Vermont GOP was more pragmatic and genteel. Vermont also shifted toward environmental laws and progressive politics sooner than New Hampshire. When I lived in Vermont, a regional barb aimed at New Hampshire held, “What can you expect from anyone living in a state that’s upside down?” These days, border differences are more about opportunity than anything else.  


There remain keener differences. When Valerie moved from Vermont to Virginia, she liked the friendliness of Virginians but had little time for their nosiness or pushy religiosity. When her then-boyfriend stayed over, the next morning one of her neighbors asked if she was alright because, “there was a strange car parked in your driveway overnight.” Valerie also wearied of repeated offers from various people to “visit our church.”


Ron recalls that the western Wisconsin/Illinois border along Lake Michigan was once “toxic.” It was “notorious for late night crossings, especially on Friday and Saturday,” as Wisconsin had a drinking age of 18, whereas it was 21 in Illinois. This resulted in “hordes of young people driving to the beer bars and back, often drunk.”


Bill reminds us international borders can be settings for shady dealings. He teaches in northern Minnesota and one of his students lives part of the year on an island in Rainy Lake, which straddles the US/Canadian borders. Her research shows how Rainy Lake has long been a favorite among smugglers. It’s near International Falls, Minnesota, which was once where Canadian booze came into the United States during Prohibition. These days it’s drugs.


The Detroit River is another leaky boundary, but don’t blame Canada. Smugglers always cross borders, which is why there’s a veritable Montreal/Boston/New York heroin pipeline that flows both directions. The sad fact is that big cartels have more resources than law enforcement.


Sandy lived in Yuma, Arizona for three years. She recalls, “I liked the option of shopping in Mexico. We met many very nice people that lived in Mexico…. I cut hair of border patrol guys [who] said it was a dangerous job. We did have some illegals [from El Salvador] staying with a friend. Our pastor flew them to Los Angeles. I heard later they returned to El Salvador. The language barrier was too much for them. Their mother had left El Salvador after her husband was killed … by a guerrilla army. The boys later went with a snow bird family to live and attend school in Montana. His wife, sister and brother-in-law came up the Colorado River one night. There were always vultures sitting in the area of the border by the river. Yes, there was some drug smuggling.”


Are border battles serious, friendly, smug, or all three? Take your pick. Personally, I grow weary of those overly fixated on “Southern heritage.” It’s a loaded concept that’s often code for unsavory things. Then again, we New Englanders have a reputation for arrogance and coldness that’s often deserved.


A likely moral is that border is a mix of convenience, desperation, and opportunism. On the unsavory side, tons of heroin come in from Mexico, but you couldn’t stop it with an impenetrable 100-foot wall along the entire border. Wall-building fantasies remind me of the French who thought that their World War One Maginot Line would protect them from Hitler’s armies. There are these things called airplanes! They and a visa are how an estimated 40% of illegal aliens got to America.


Rob Weir


Border Tales Part One

Shouldn't there be more?


I have lived my entire life on or near borders. I spent my formative years in Pennsylvania, just a dozen miles from the Maryland border and just 40 from West Virginia. I recall how disappointed I was the first time my parents drove into Maryland and there was just a stupid sign. In my childhood head, I wanted a major demarcation: columns, an arch, or at least dotted lines like those on my maps.


Later I moved to northwestern Vermont and lived hard by the US/Canada line. I was on a border of sorts even when I lived in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s at the tip of the North Island, a ferry ride from the South Island. These days I’m in Western Massachusetts, a half hour from three states– Connecticut, New Hampshire, or Vermont–depending on which direction I point my car.  


I’ve had lots of chances to muse over which borders matter and which ones don’t. The Pennsylvania/Maryland border was inconsequential, though Hagerstown, Maryland, was/is more diverse and, back then, racial tensions were high. Crossing into West Virginia was more of a jolt. Its state slogan used to be “Wild Wonderful West Virginia.” The first part was decidedly true; the second a matter for debate. It was/is a place of played-out mining towns, deer-jackers, rough bars, rusted pickup trucks, and a higher percentage of poor folks than any state should have.


In 1978, I moved to northwestern Vermont. New York State was just 12 miles away, but you had to cross or go around Lake Champlain to get there, so I seldom went. Most of my border crossings were between Vermont and Québec. Montreal was just over an hour away, which made it the go-to city. My French was rudimentary, but uttering the phrase “J’habite au Vermont” usually unmoored English that Québeçois refused to waste on anyone from Ontario. Separatist sentiment remained high in the early 1980s, though Montreal had shed much of its old skin and had become a major global city. I enjoyed Expos games, despite Olympic Stadium's earned reputation as a terrible place to watch baseball. One of the first things one notices crossing into any part of Canada is that civic and personal pride exist at higher levels there. There is little litter in evidence, most people maintain their properties, being stupid is nothing to brag about, and in Québec Les Habs (Montreal Canadians) have more followers than the Catholic Church. But you can take Montreal drivers. Please!


Some of my Canadian border experiences involved alcohol. As a high school teacher, I often chaperoned events. In Vermont, you had to be 21 to buy alcohol; in Canada it was 18. On Friday nights, some students crossed the border to buy booze, with Molson Brador a perennial favorite. Smuggling wasn’t hard to pull off, as so many families had relatives across the border, could drop by to say hello, and could truthfully tell the Border Patrol they were paying them a visit. At events, I was of a see-no-evil disposition, but I needed to watch those ducking in and out of school events, as it often meant that students were pounding down Bradors in the parking lot. Not everyone handled it well, especially since Brador has an ABV of 6.2%. On a few occasions, I had to rat on someone for safety’s sake. 


You might think there’s not much difference between New Zealand’s North and South Island, but you’d be wrong. Crossing the Cook Strait from Wellington took me from a hilly city to an island whose spine is dominated by tall mountains that earn their nickname: The Southern Alps. The South Island is more rugged, less populated, and has its micro climates, which is why most New Zealand wines are produced there. North Island cities like Wellington and Auckland are international in character, whereas Christchurch is quite English and Dunedin is Scottish. The Maori presence is heavier in the North, and scattered small South Island towns often evoke the Wild West.


It’s surprising how much borders matter where I now live. Hartford is just an hour away, but the moment one drives into Connecticut, 28 miles distant, the traffic grows heavier and faster in pace. Frankly, Connecticut drivers terrify me, though I live in a state whose motorists are called “Massholes.” The opposite occurs when I travel the same distance north and cross into Vermont. It feels relaxed and residents of southern Vermont towns such as Brattleboro take themselves way less seriously–in a good way. To me, Hartford is harried, Northampton political, and Brattleboro as comfy as an old flannel shirt.


Until one gets to Keene, a drive into New Hampshire via Northfield, MA is not a Granite State tourist brochure. It’s one of the few places in New England where one finds auto racing, but don’t think Darlington. Most of the towns along Route 10 have seen better days, and their stately official buildings stand in marked contrast to battered commercial districts and dilapidated homes. The only reason to live in them is that most taxes are lower or non-existent in New Hampshire (though real estate taxes are higher). New Hampshire has some stunning landscape and picturesque towns, but not near my border.


Tune in next time to see what others have said about border experiences.


Rob Weir