It’s no substitute for William Least Heat-Moon‘s Blue Highways, but Paul Theroux‘s road-trip story in the latest issue of Smithsonian is an entertaining chronicle of a speedy trip across the United States. It can be difficult to think of Theroux as an American author sometimes, given how rarely his fiction is set there, and Theroux himself confesses he feels a bit like an outsider working on the piece:
In my life, I had sought out other parts of the world—Patagonia, Assam, the Yangtze; I had not realized that the dramatic desert I had imagined Patagonia to be was visible on my way from Sedona to Santa Fe, that the rolling hills of West Virginia were reminiscent of Assam and that my sight of the Mississippi recalled other great rivers. I’m glad I saw the rest of the world before I drove across America. I have traveled so often in other countries and am so accustomed to other landscapes, I sometimes felt on my trip that I was seeing America, coast to coast, with the eyes of a foreigner, feeling overwhelmed, humbled and grateful.
A book by Theroux that attempted a broad treatment of the country would be worth reading (though hopefully it would have fewer clunky generalizations like “as a nation, we are warriors as well as peacemakers”). But would enough people want to read it to make it worth publishing? The road novel seems like a relic now, runoff of the enthusiasm that followed the WPA guides and the construction of the interstate highway system. (Last year’s collection State by State was a weak attempt to revive that spirit; the majority of the pieces were drab once-over-lightlies, scanning each state the way people tend to scan magazines.) I recently (finally) finished Richard Yates‘ Revolutionary Road, and among its many pleasures is how it underscores the intense feeling of wanderlust in the mid-50s—the open road was new and exciting, suburbia was new and oppressive, and can’t we just get the hell out? Decades later, the highway has become less interesting, and more and more writers have taken Sherwood Anderson‘s command to William Faulkner to heart—try to understand your “little postage stamp of native soil” instead of trying to figure out a whole nation. (The only contemporary road novels that immediately spring to mind are Mark Z. Danielewski‘s Only Revolutions, an experimental narrative that drenches the story in wordplay and irony, as if a road story were now so trite it would be foolish to tell it straight; and Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, which decimates the landscape, as if we were idiots to ever romanticize it.) We’re not worse off for this lack—now that we no longer live in a monoculture, a big, nation-swallowing novel seems both impossible and pointless—though it’s a little surprising that writers are less inclined to figure out how we fit in the larger scheme of things, in favor of figuring out the tiny spots where we are in the first place.