Monday, May 11, 2009

Blue Highways

Well folks, here it is. The inauguration of my book reviews on this blog. Huzzah! Up first: Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.

American literature is full of travel narratives: Huckleberry Finn, The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...the list goes on and on. Perhaps it speaks to a inherent need to "go" within the American. After all, even those who have been here the longest are descended from migrants traveling the land-bridge from Asia. If we sit and think on it, I'm sure most of us could come up with a list of travels that brought us to where we are. They may not be our own adventures-they may reach back hundreds of years. But the "going" is there. It's in our blood.

William Least Heat-Moon portrays such a going in his book. As his life falls apart-fired from his job, splitting up with his wife, feeling generally lost-he decides to drive around the country in a Ford Econoline van using only the "blue highways," or those roads represented by the blue lines on his atlas. No interstates. No chains (if he could avoid it). No hotels (for the most part). Just William and his van, Ghost Dancing. He literally travels around the country seeking something, but what exactly that something is the reader nor the author ever seem to know. Maybe he's just seeking America. Or maybe he's seeking himself. Or both. Read the book and decide for yourself.

The travelogue is full of interesting encounters between Heat-Moon and the residents of various towns and villages along the way. It was especially interesting (for me at least) to read of encounters in places I know or that are fairly close to home. It's pretty amazing to read how much some of these folks opened up to him; makes me wonder if people would do the same for me! (Although admittedly having a Greek textbook on an airplane does tend to get conversations rolling). The book is a great read and I think will get anyone itching to move. I was especially interested in his experiences in the bayous of Louisiana and on the Chesapeake Bay. I was pretty captivated by this read, not so much by the action (because to be honest it's not very "action packed") but by the honesty displayed by the author and the people in the book. I wanted to see who he would meet next, what they would say, what ridiculous name the town would have. There's something compelling about this travel narrative. It is very much about the author, but at the same time there's a kind of self-effacement that makes it about us as well.

Now, for a couple of downsides. The travels took place in 1978 and the book was published in 1983. I wasn't alive in 1978. I doubt I was even a twinkle in either of my parent's eyes at this point (I don't know if they had even met yet). That said, there are definitely times when the book feels dated, dated in ways that books like Huck Finn seems to avoid. Maybe it's because it is the recent past-it's like what he is writing about is that word on the tip of your tongue that you just can't seem to remember. The late seventies and early eighties are that way for me-I definitely didn't experience them, but I feel that if I try hard enough I could visualize/remember it. So the dated-ness of the book felt a little alienating at times, but that could be very much limited to those in my particular generation.

The other downside is the tendency towards a self-righteousness and divinization of the "old" that occurs throughout the book. I don't want to get on the author too much about the self-righteousness business. It's a sin most of us are guilty of, but at times it can be a bit unbearable. The divinization of the old is more problematic, however. At times I wonder if Heat-Moon doesn't want things to stay the same purely for the sake of staying the same. That to me seems just as bad as change for the sake of change. I am not advocating the idea of "progress," and as an historian and a church person I have a love of tradition. But what I've learned is that there has to be real meaning to those traditions and why we hang onto them. Otherwise we start to sound like old codgers who can't stand when anything changes. Too much of Heat-Moon's prose tends in this direction. Yes, chain restaurants can feel sterile and bad, and yes we too often let economic "progress" destroy national and local treasures. I do not doubt this. But some of Heat-Moon's characters see the problems with small towns staying exactly the same--the young people leave because there is no opportunity. It's more than the "nothing to do" of the teenage years. There seems to be a lack of future. The future Heat-Moon sees for these places is one of decline and destruction on the parts of the "rest of us" who don't live there, but there's a curious lack of suggestions for solutions on his part.

That said, you probably think I don't like the book. On the contrary, I thought it was great. The social historian in me loved it. The person with the travel bug in me loved it. And the reader in me loved it. It a great record of one man's travels on America's backroads, and makes me want to try a similar thing sometime (Rick and I have dreamed about driving Magic all the way down Route 66 some time...).

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