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Manhattanites find peace in bucolic Catskills

By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

It Takes a Village Idiot
By Jim Mullen
Simon & Schuster
288 pages

(CNN) -- There once was a popular television series about an upscale New York couple who bought a farm and moved to the country. Whatever you do, don't mention "Green Acres" to Jim Mullen. The columnist for "Entertainment Weekly" has heard all the Hooterville jokes he can stand. That's because he and his wife, a relatively upscale New York couple, bought a farm and moved to the country.

The move didn't happen all at once. The farm began as a "weekend place," a refuge from city life. Mullen explains how they came to own it, and how it came to own them, in his delightful book, "It Takes a Village Idiot." The way he tells it, the story began when his wife quit smoking. She decided they needed a weekend house because, he concludes, she didn't know what to do with her hands.

The Mullens aren't exactly pioneer stock. They're Manhattanites. "Sure," he explains, "New York was a sewer, but it was our sewer. Living in the worst part of Manhattan was still better than living in the best part of L.A., the best part of Chicago, the best part of Philadelphia (if there is such a thing). Better to rule in bohemian hell than to serve in bourgeois heaven."

Mullen wasn't convinced his wife was serious about finding a place in the county. "This is a phase," he told himself. "She'll get over it. I tried to be supportive, but no matter what I said, she wouldn't start smoking again."

He underestimated her persistence. She finally found a place in the Catskills. To Mullen's horror, the farm she bought was outside a town so small it didn't have a McDonald's, never mind a decent Thai restaurant. To hear him tell it, a New Yorker adjusts to small town life with the same enthusiasm as a free range chicken has for adjusting to life as an entree. But with Mullen, the result is much, much funnier.

"It Takes a Village Idiot" is always amusing and sometimes hilarious. Mullen chronicles his "fish out of water" existence with an air of weary resignation. Take the chores, for example.

"I learned that doing mindless, repetitive work gives the mind a chance to wander. The Trappist monks and Carmelite nuns have been doing it for hundreds of years, foreswearing material things in favor of soul-cleansing menial labor. Unfortunately, it seems to have the opposite effect on postal workers."

Without seeming to notice, the Mullens become accustomed to the daily bucolic routine. They no longer run for cover when their neighbor sprays fresh manure on the field next door. They no longer consider it odd that the pickles they serve at dinnertime come from a canning jar in the basement rather than a kosher deli. They have divorced themselves from city life so thoroughly that the sound of gunfire during deer season actually startles them.

Their transformation isn't brought home until friends from the city come for a visit and ask about the nightlife. "Coming to Catskill County to go barhopping," Mullen muses, "is like going to SoHo to go cropdusting." Their weekends at the farm gradually get longer and longer. Eventually, they realize they're spending more time in the country than in the city. The attractions of barns and tapping maple trees outweigh the attractions of skyscrapers and drive-by shootings.

"What is the difference between summer and winter on Wall Street?" Mullen wonders. "The buildings don't wave in the wind, they don't turn from brown to green to gold to gray; the windows don't fall out. The cabs are still yellow; people do the same thing they did last season. There is no dusk, there is no dawn. In the city I know when the moon is full only because there are more murders than usual. In Walleye I know when the moon is full because I can see it."

"It Takes a Village Idiot" is the sort of brisk read that makes it fit perfectly into a beach bag. Don't be surprised if, at the end of a day fighting crowds and traffic, you decide Mullen has the right idea and head off to find him. You won't. There is no town called Walleye and no Catskill County. The people and places have been fictionalized. The details of his story are made up, although the story itself is very true. Mullen is no fool. He knows if he describes his actual surroundings in any detail, he'll have caravans of "flatlanders" parking at his doorstep. And that would be as bad as living in the city again.

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