A frequently charming narrative epic in which a one-time hippie hitchhiker throws off middle-aged shackles and takes to the road in search of an America that, this time, he finds everywhere.
British expat Brookes (Signs of Life, 1997) arrived in the US in 1973 as a starry-eyed youth and hitchhiked around the beguiling heartland, alongside what seemed to be his whole generation. He repeats his original journey, this time under the auspices of narrative construction, and in loose tandem with National Geographic photographer Tomaszewski hitchhikes (with occasional concessions to practical travel) from Pennsylvania to San Francisco, up to Sturgis, South Dakota (for its famed “biker” convention), and then through the dispiriting Midwestern “Rust Belt” back to his Vermont home. Throughout, Brookes presents the nitty-gritty of interstate-trekking and hitching rides with effective vividness and immediacy. One is reassured, as was Brookes himself, by the friendly generosity of the “natives” he encounters—although they’re an eccentric lot, pursuing their separate Ahabian quests—and by the straightened-out lives of the erstwhile “freaks” he contacts from his 1973 journey. Subtle social undertones develop: he hitches many rides from long-haul truckers and veterans, from jittery libertarians and salt-of-the-earth blue-collar types, from kindly middle-aged liberals and hyper-capitalists in fancy cars. Brookes’s own political sensibility can become cloying, or predictable: suburbanites fear too much, the rural impoverished among us are the sainted folk, and lest we forget, All The Young People were surely on the right path during the ever-mourned 1960s. Fortunately, his well-honed sense of detail and witty-yet-unsettling prose, which recall a less acid Martin Amis, carry the day. And many of his darker observations—from the shunting aside of Native American communities to the physically destructive supremacy of automobile culture in US life—ring true, even in the context of his naturalistic amble.
This enjoyable book functions variously: as an enthusiastic pro-hitchhiking treatise, a reverent guide to an evanescent “ordinary” America, and a sometimes-pedantic address of contemporary division and isolation.