Blue Highways : A Journey into America

by William Least Heat-Moon
Little Brown & Co, 1999

Review by Patti L. Smith

The premise of the book is simple and enticing: a man, who has lost his job and is losing his marriage, drives through small town America, in search of off the beaten path places-places that time forgot. This premise, coupled with a recommendation from the clerk at Border's that this was one of the best books he'd ever read-how could I not love this book? I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either.

Undoubtedly, there is an audience for this book. I have a feeling that people who love this book are vocal and passionate and what I'm about to say will touch a few nerves. I am still surprised at my inability to get "in" to this book. I wonder if my "under whelmed" reaction to the book was because I am used to the shoot 'em up, action packed pace of today's popular culture. I wonder how I would have reacted to the book if I had read it when it first came out, in the early 80s. I wonder if the author could even do this same book today. I wonder if too much has changed. I wonder if anything's changed at all.

The pace of the book is slow and extremely descriptive. If one is seeking an action packed thriller, you won't find it here. What you will find is a soul-searching journey that takes the author from his home of Missouri, to places like Nameless, Tennessee, Dime Box, Texas and Hat Creek, California, all the way around America until he's home in Missouri again.

Along the way, William Heat-Moon eschews the bright lights big cities of Dallas, Detroit and Manhattan for small town bars, diners and college campuses. What I found amazing was his ability to chat up the "townies" in each place that he visited. Heat-Moon has a gift for making the people he's talking to feel special. He is genuinely interested in what they have to say. He is also genuinely interested in finding out about the towns and their respective histories. Perhaps it's just the times we live in, but I don't even make eye contact with people at the supermarket let alone start a conversation at a diner with a total stranger. I kept thinking about this as I read the book. As if echoing my thoughts, Heat-Moon at one point, while in the "central North", (Wisconsin, heading into Michigan) declares that conversations were difficult to strike up in the North and that he missed the South, where "any topic is worth at least a brief exchange." The effect leaves Heat-Moon feeling more alone than he had even felt in the desert.

The novel drifts from story to story, description to description, conversation to conversation. One stand out was his stop near Conyers, Georgia at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Among the monks he meets is former Patrolman Patrick Duffy, now known as Brother Patrick. Heat-Moon speaks with the monk about a variety of topics, including his decision to leave police work for priest work. I found particularly interesting their discussion about noise, and the lack thereof. Brother Patrick advises that when he is quiet, he starts hearing the world outside himself. It is then that he hears "something very great". In today's noisy world, I found this notion both insightful and challenging.

Also noteworthy was a stop in Selma, Alabama and conversations with both whites and blacks about the civil rights marches which, at the time the book was written, were in the recent past. Heat-Moon chatted up whites at a de facto "white" bar and blacks around town. Because of his association and conversations with the black men, the sheriff's deputies started to "watch" Heat-Moon. Later, he finds out that they believe him to be a drugdealer. Based on these experiences, the author found that whites griped about change while blacks felt that there wasn't enough change to gripe about.

Additionally, Heat-Moon is an enthusiastic eater, something with which I can personally relate. His rating system for diners is not to be forgotten or minimized: the more calendars on the wall, the better the food. He rates them from zero calendars ("same as an interstate pit stop") to five calendars ("keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.") (For more on the ills of franchising, read the author's terrific views on franchises of page 16). Heat-Moon's descriptions of his food, waitresses and dinner companions are rich and hearty, like the food he (most of the time) is eating. I think it would have been a terrific novel if he had just gone from diner to bar to diner to bar and wrote about the food in these small towns!

A few things troubled me, and I later learned that they troubled my book club companions as well. Heat-Moon's finances concerned many of us. When Heat-Moon starts the journey, he has a little over $450 in cash plus four gas cards with him. He lives in his van, and frequently takes meals at university cafeterias (which I assume are low cost), but we kept wondering about his bank account throughout the book. Apparently, he finishes the journey with money to spare, so I guess we needn't have worried about him.

Further, my book club companions and I wondered if he could take this trip today. I was born in the 70s, and remember it as an idyllic time even though I am sure it had its share of crime and problems. In today's environment, however, I am not sure how much success Heat-Moon would have had in his travels. He was occasionally bothered by police while he "camped" in his van-today would he be bothered by criminals as well? What about the advent of cell phones, e-mail and wireless technology? Would people be as open to talking and sharing with him as they had been in the late 70s?

Finally, we discussed whether a woman would have been able to take this trip. The general consensus was that she probably could not. Unfortunately, security is a high priority for women and sleeping alone in a van poses a high risk of danger in most places. Further, we wondered how people would react to a woman who was alone in bars and restaurants, chatting people up.

Overall, I think the book was about 150 pages too long. For me, I would have loved to see him concentrate on his conversations with people and his descriptions of his meals. Given Heat-Moon's engaging writing style, I would be happy to read something else by this thoughtful author. This book also forced me to reexamine how I react to and initiate social interactions. In fact, I have even started striking up conversations with waiters, clerks and fellow patrons. I may not be as skilled at it as Heat-Moon is, but it's a start.

3 stars out of 5

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