Herzog’s third travel memoir (Small World: A Microcosmic Journey, 2004, etc.) follows the highways cross-country to his college reunion at Cornell University, examining the idea of the hero along the way.
The author begins close to Mt. Olympus, Wash.; like his role model, Odysseus, he headed for Ithaca (New York in this case). Herzog took off in a mammoth Winnebago, visiting hamlets called Troy, Calypso, Siren and Plato, as well as some places he once called home. Camping in RV parks and Wal-Mart parking lots and eating in homegrown cafés, the author talked with a wide variety of people, including farmers, cops, small-town politicians and more. There is “Hobo Dan,” who supports his lifestyle by making earrings out of gopher paws; Bud, a sassy 95-year-old who brags that his driver’s license is valid until he’s 102; and Ray, a volunteer cosmologist who has recorded the weather in Pandora, Ohio, every night since 1949. Herzog is at his best when he allows these amusing, winsome folks to tell their stories in their own voices. He also captures stunning details of the American landscape—black Angus cattle grazing peacefully on a pale green mountainside; a Yield sign riddled with bullet holes presiding over a crossroads in the middle of nowhere; steam rising from the ground in a former coal-mining town in Pennsylvania; a monument honoring a faithful dog named Shep. The exhaustive self-analysis, on the other hand, becomes tiresome, though there are flashes of excellent self-awareness, like Herzog’s characterization of himself as “sushi-eating, Gap-wearing, left-leaning interloper” at a tractor-pull competition. Attempts to draw parallels between his experiences and classical mythology result in some jarring transitions and tedious digressions, but the denouement, the hero’s return, is irresistible.
A quest for authenticity and self-acceptance, marred by occasional sentimentality and banality, but ultimately redeemed by a near-perfect ending.