An amiable, literate tour of America’s byways, in the company of the poet laureate of the back road.
Heat-Moon (River-Horse, 1999, etc.), as if channeling Kerouac, whom he writes about here at some length, announces early on a rationale for his wanderings and writings over the last quarter-century or so: “to break those long silent miles, I must stop and hunt stories and only later set down my gatherings in order to release them one day to wander on their own.” In this instance, grown suddenly fond of the letter Q, he ponders the word quoz (“rhymes with Oz”), a quizzical, questioning quest in search of who knows what, so long as it’s wonderful. So he heads at first west by way of the wondrous Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, which are really ancient worn-down hills separated by a broad valley full of colorful characters, some with teeth, some with stills. Heat-Moon, naturally enough, turns to suitable pondering, reflecting that many years before he had found himself “wondering how many people I’d meet if I lived to be four score and ten,” and reckoning that the total might be 100,000, almost all of them pleasant “or at least neutral” encounters. Here, as the author steers into the dark hearts of Maine, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida and other corners of this wide land, he turns up plenty of nice folk who serve him fried chicken, scrod or tacos and tell him tales of their lives. Heat-Moon’s travels have a Steinbeckian air, but with a decidedly countercultural twist, as when he pronounces, “To live more otherly is to live more lastingly. It’s a fundamental law of biology.”
Residents of states not mentioned will surely wish that Heat-Moon’s quozzical travels had taken him there as well—a pleasure for his fans, who are deservingly many.