Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Jack Kerouac was never this pedantic

Robert Sullivan, working in the American tradition, went on a road trip, but the result is bogged down in detailing the mundane


Another traveler, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spent two months in 1919 driving a military convoy across the country; the shoddy roads left a lasting impression on him. After World War II he studied Hitler's autobahn and concluded that the American military should have one. In 1956 he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which, the president recounted in his memoir, resulted in enough concrete to build “six sidewalks to the moon.” The new highways were originally meant to loop around cities that could be skirted should they be destroyed by atomic bombs. Instead, the loops started a suburban construction boom that continues to this day. Sullivan reports that Phoenix, a city that virtually rose out of the Interstate, currently gobbles up land at the rate of 1.2 acres per hour.

In the 1960s state toll roads entered into the system, extending the web to all corners of the country. Today almost 75,600km of Interstate highways — with attendant motels, fast-food courts and construction projects — have paved over the continent with such efficiency that one can move from sea to shining sea with speed, economy and almost zero interpersonal interaction.

Which is essentially how the Sullivans' drive goes. “I sense that this is another person who I have gotten to know the tiniest bit by walking down a hall he was in at a very early hour,” Sullivan notes, spotting a fellow motel guest at a Kum & Go station.

Herein is the book's great weakness: Very little happens during the journey. Making matters worse, Sullivan's trademark pointillist writing style, ideal for illustrating exotic activities like whale and rat hunting, becomes pedantic when applied to the more mundane task of highway cruising.

Between musings on history, the six-day drive stretches into 372 pages of mind-numbing logistics: a troublesome roof pack is installed, adjusted and readjusted ad nauseam; “enough coffee to drown an elephant” is described cup by cup; a quest for the next Holiday Inn Express seems to take longer than Lewis and Clark's crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains.

There are moments of brilliance along the way. But the verbose text, like the notes that pioneers deposited along old Western wagon trails, encourages the reader to take shortcuts. Too bad Sullivan or an editor didn't take them first.

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