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LONG WAY HOME by Bill Barich


On the Trail of Steinbeck's America

by Bill Barich

Pub Date: Oct. 12th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1754-2
Publisher: Walker

The thin chronicle of a cross-country trip modeled on John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

When Barich (A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub, 2009, etc.) revisited the 1962 classic and decided it was ripe for an update, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Most readers remember the travelogue as comic in tone, but Barich found much of its social commentary not only bleak but prophetic. So he committed himself to a two-month, 6,000-mile drive across the country, avoiding cities and major highways as much as possible while trying to take the pulse of the country on the eve of a pivotal presidential election. Unfortunately for the reader, too much of what the author offers as discovery is obvious to the point of cliché. A California hippie in the 1960s who has spent nearly a decade in Ireland, he learns on his return to his homeland that many conservatives not only listen to talk radio but parrot the likes of Rush Limbaugh. “In an earlier century, they’d have been selling snake oil,” he writes of airwave propagandists. He finds an America overrun by chain operations and malls—“repetitiveness robs travel of its essence. There’s nothing to discover”—yet he also finds some good fishing here and there, some natural beauty (particularly in Colorado) and some tasty meals in regional restaurants. Most of the places he visits merit little more than a page, while some are dispensed in a paragraph. When he moves from the specific to the general, the results can be glib: “Often I think Mexicans know something I don’t. They seem to have an ease of being I envy. I can’t remember ever meeting a dour Mexican in California—nasty, yes, and even obnoxious, but never dour.” He sees challenges and contradictions in the American ethos, but ultimately proclaims that he is “more hopeful than Steinbeck.”

A journey that loses its way on the road to significance.