Take a Roadtrip in Your Armchair: The Road to Somewhere by James A. Reeves
Lanie Tankard, reviewer extraordinaire and world traveler, is about to set off for distant lands — again. Before she left, however, she sent in this review. Reading it is an adventure in itself. Enjoy!
The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir. New York: W.W. Norton, August 2011 (411 pages)
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”—Jack Kerouac, On the Road (Part 2)
I took a road trip with James Reeves.
We crisscrossed the grid of this country together, along all the highways and byways, up and down, back and forth, flipping the dial listening to snippets of talk radio to pass the time during fifty-five thousand miles. Along the way, he pondered what he was seeing and hearing, offering observations much like a sociologist would. He photographed interesting scenes along the roadside, calling my attention to images not normally found in travel brochures.
I didn’t want to get out when the Dollar Rent A Car finally ground to a halt five years later in New Orleans, for Reeves had opened his heart on the pages of The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir and I wanted to keep reading. I truly felt as though I had been in the car with him, so vivid and personal was his writing.
He drove many roads I remember well, and described many towns I know, yet he viewed them from a different perspective and showed me angles I’d missed when I’d been there. Reeves pulled back the curtains of fly-by-night lodgings to peer out the windows at the hidden landscape of America, desperately trying to find a place for himself in it beyond all the Waffle Houses.
What is it that a man is supposed to do, expected to be, required to accomplish? He breaks down his quest for the answers into sections titled Men, Country, Work, Home, Discipline, God, Guts, and Strength.
Driven partly by grief over the sudden loss of his mother, he combines his quest for meaning with his journey through mourning. Reeves adds to the mix photos from his own family and childhood, blending them with memories of his grandfather, his father, and his mother to create a poignant, elegant, thought-provoking memoir unlike any I’ve ever seen.
He takes the “Road to Nowhere,” á la the Talking Heads 1985 song, and turns it into The Road to Somewhere. Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison penned the song lyrics this way:
“Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen.”
Reeves, on the other hand, has no idea where he’s going, but he’s sure trying very hard to say what he’s seen. He does so in a scientific, dispassionate way at times, and occasionally bares his soul on the printed page.
He wonders whether other countries “hold such a passion for their highways,” if our country is too big, what people are picking up in all their pickup trucks, why a shocked woman is standing in the middle of the road in a negligee clutching a cat at 2 a.m. on his drive through the Smoky Mountains — “Just needed a walk,” she tells him.
He notices, “everyone has a device nowadays,” adding “I have no idea what everyone is up to behind their little screens.” When you can see which newspaper someone is reading or the cover of the book that person is holding, “I can judge you.” In that sense, he notes, technology has taken away our ability to evaluate one another. What might that mean? He wonders at what point handwriting might no longer be required.
Reeves pushes ideas to the brink, saying, “I drive to the edges of things.” He stops to spend time at places that interest him, such as the Cosmic Ray Center in Utah.
Ultimately he sees “There’s kindness on the road.” After his mother dies, he notices his father shuffling around the house, sighing.
“I told him to pack a bag. We’re going for a drive. That’s my answer to everything.”
The tender memories Reeves shares about his mother are some of the most touching parts of the book. The reader can almost see the love. He went beyond her charge to “go out into the world and look around” — he also contemplated what he saw. He photographed it and he wrote about it. And then he bound it between two covers and dedicated it to her, adding, “I miss you.”
A.A. Milne put it this way: “Pay attention to where you are going because without meaning you might get nowhere.” James Reeves, I feel sure, will end up somewhere.
Enjoyed this review — and the inclusion of the Talking Heads. I’m not much of a music afficionado, and while I’ve heard of TH — hadn’t identified their music. I think I’ll try to read this based on Lanie’s insightful review.
Glad you enjoyed. I did too. I thought Lanie really gave us the flavor of being on the road with Reeves. I confess I had never even heard of Talking Heads. Shows you how savvy I am about popular music since the Beatles. 🙂
This review is so deft, a pleasure in itself, and makes me want to read this book. Eons ago there was one with a similar idea, Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, but the neat thing about writing is that two people could do exactly the same thing and the resulting books would be completely different.
And you came up with the perfect one-word description for this review: “deft.” Hope Lanie chimes in from Amsterdam!
Chiming in from Austin finally! Didn’t spend too much time on the WWW whilst on the road in the Netherlands. The Reeves memoir is surely one of the most creative I’ve ever read. Loved it! He made me notice the details as I travel.
Richard, I hadn’t heard of BLUE HIGHWAYS: http://www.amazon.com/Blue-Highways-Journey-into-America/dp/0316353299 It sounds compelling. Think I’ll get a copy. Thanks for mentioning it.
And thanks for the adjective — better deft than daft!
I always enjoy Lanie’s review—deft or daft. Can’t wait to read this memoir. Thanks for a great review.
Come back and tell us what you think of the book after you read it!