Life derails a commissioned meditation on Kerouac from a young American writer.
On assignment from his publishers to reappraise On the Road in the age of Obama, Buzzell (My War: Killing Time in Iraq, 2005) admits that while he adored Kerouac as a teenager and has several copies of the book, including a first edition, after a tour in Iraq, he had lost his passion for it. More to the point, he was distracted by two personal events: his mother’s terminal illness and the birth of his son. At loose ends, in mourning and frankly wanting to postpone the responsibilities of married life and fatherhood, Buzzell decided to make a journey all his own, starting in San Francisco and following his whims to discover America on his own terms. His travels took him to Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Denver, Omaha, Des Moines and, most enduringly (and endearingly) to Detroit before he winding up almost by chance in New York City. Along the way, he drove and lost money on an ice-cream truck, cleared land with a chainsaw for a new Safeway, sold used items at a Salvation Army and engaged in a lot of drinking and spending time in flophouses, his preferred mode of lodging. For nearly half the book, the narrative is as rootless and random as the author’s wanderings at first. Buzzell was amusingly unimpressed with himself, and he lets the reader in on his self-doubts about the project at hand every step of the way. It’s only in Detroit, where he openly assumed the role of writer, that he truly found his footing as a witty, fearless, sharp-eyed chronicler of America in decline. Time, Inc.’s purchase of a “safe house” in an upper-class enclave for its reporters to cover Detroit’s devastation reminds him of Baghdad’s Green Zone, where American reporters idled in high style between jaunts into the wrecked city to cover the war. Besides being intensely self-aware, Buzzell exhibits a Henry Miller–like talent for the memorable character sketch, and Detroit gives him plenty of subjects.
A slow starter with a strong finish.