Don Shewey

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

[Blue Highways] is a treacherously earnest quest, and the writing sometimes gets corny and precious. But Blue Highways passes the basic test of travel books—you feel like you've gone along for the ride—and it occasionally succeeds at something more ambitious. Least Heat Moon locates the origin of storytelling in the land: what it looks like, who lived there, what they did, what happened to them….

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Almost invariably Blue Highways sags in the philosophy department. Least Heat Moon tussles with integrating past, present, and future both inside and outside himself, but he leans too heavily for my taste on the pieties of Black Elk, and his own perceptions tend to sound more pompous than provocative ("Ego, craving distinction, belongs to the narrowness of now; but self, looking for union, belongs to the past and future."). Travel is a perfect opportunity to wallow in emotion and make self-pity a religion, but Least Heat Moon's observations remain oddly impersonal, never touching on vulgar human concerns like sex. I suppose it's just as well; his domestic problems sound dreary. Not surprisingly for a man in the middle of a divorce, he indulges in the guilty pleasure of belittling strange women. In Newport, "where jacktars had walked with the sway the sea teaches, now coeds from the Seven Sisters waggled their precious butts atop Pappagallos, and permanent-press matrons, safe in tummy-control Spandex, their triceps swinging in the wind, lugged purses the size of seabags." He does at times achieve humility: holed up in a tiny North Dakota hotel room with neon blinking through the curtain, he says, "I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind."

The book gets better as it goes along because Least Heat Moon gets better at playing Studs Terkel—though, lacking Terkel's tape recorder, he sometimes has a tin ear for dialogue. And unlike Edmund White's marvelously catholic States of Desire, Blue Highways leans toward characters who share the author's unconditional fondness for olden times, like the geezer in Hat Creek, California, who complains that his grandchildren "won't have anything unless wires come out of it. If I ran an extension cord down my pantleg and let them plug me in, then they'd believe they had a real great-granddad." Still, unless you're planning to weather a Rocky Mountain snowstorm in the back of a pickup, or spend a night on Tangier Island, Maryland, talking to a wise old schoolmarm, Blue Highways works as vicarious adventure of the first order.

Don Shewey, in a review of "Blue Highways" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications. Inc.; 1983), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 21, May 24, 1983, p. 50.

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