William Least Heat-Moon John Updike - Essay

William Lewis Trogdon

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Blue Highways"] has been launched toward success by kind words [on the book's dust jacket] from Annie Dillard, Farley Mowat, and Robert Penn Warren. Mr. Warren not only has obliged with an ideal puff for the front of the jacket—"A masterpiece"—but has written the front-flap copy as well. It is he, and not the author, who tells us that William Least Heat Moon "set out to … write a book about America."

Heat Moon's own explanation is

With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.

This seems disingenuously highminded—self-dramatizing but not self-revealing. The author could, I think, have confided a bit more of his curriculum vitae to the reader in the course of over four hundred big pages. His third chapter, less than two pages long, announces, "I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up about that topic." He does not tell us where he is from, where he has been, or what he has done. He does not tell us that, set adrift by spouse and employer, he has embarked on an odyssey determined to redeem his life with a literary feat, though this would appear, from the determined manner of his peregrinations and his prose, and from the tape recorder, journal, and cameras he took with him, a plausible conjecture. It is a shortcoming of his venture that, though an immense thirteen-thousand-mile itinerary develops—a rough clockwise circuit of the boundaries of the forty-eight contiguous states, along mostly back roads—no inner curve of feeling tells us if this grandly invoked search reaches or fails to reach its objective. Instead, thousands of miles and hundreds of incidents, conversations, and pieces of scenery bear in upon the reader with the numbing, glittering muchness of a very long car ride. Since Heat Moon writes a thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and evocative if not exactly dancing prose, and since he is a benign and shrewd though somewhat taciturn companion, one reads on, and on, out of a kind of courtesy to the author. But no Moby Dick of an envisioned thesis surfaces on the horizon to pull the worlds of detail toward some gravitational center; the venture never quite becomes an adventure. (pp. 121-22)

We could have used more generalization. In de Tocqueville, the proportion of incident to generalized assertion and description is no more than one to ten; "Blue Highways" reverses the ratio. We hope for more from a travel book—especially when its terrain is the land where we live, and whose news we see nightly on television—than a heap of piquant facts, however nicely chiselled and arranged…. Heat Moon's inner quest keeps sinking out of sight; his Weltschmerz merges with road weariness, his muffled marital grief—his wife, also of mixed blood, is...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)