William Least Heat-Moon John Updike
by William Lewis Trogdon

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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["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 identified simply as the Cherokee—is relegated to a single long-distance phone call, which leads nowhere. His intermittent wish to pump significance into his material drives him toward tangled rhetoric…. He is a great believer in bars as forums of opinion, and we hear a good deal about café cuisine. Some of the conversations he has are good; others feel stagy and forced—forced by his need to produce them for his unacknowledged companion, this book in embryo. It seems bookishness that tugs him toward towns bearing quaint names—Nameless, Lookingglass, Dime Box, Othello. His regional descriptions can be magical—such as that of the Palouse, a weirdly fertile area, in Washington State, of hills so steep that special machinery has to be built to harvest the crops—but sometimes feel as obligatory as postcards. There are too many pushed metaphors, including a peculiar type of pathetic fallacy, highway personification…. (p. 123)

More might have been done with the author's Indianness; this was meant, perhaps, to provide the angle of vision, the spin on the pitch. Few stretches of land and pages pass without a reminder of some past battle or treaty whereby the first Americans were deprived of their continental domain…. Yet William Least Heat Moon's actual encounters with Indians, and his long drives through old Indian territory, fall rather flat. In Texas, he picks up an elderly hitchhiker who turns out to be the offspring of a vaquero (cowboy) and an Apache mother, and, though "he was the only Apache, mestizo or otherwise" the author had ever talked to, neither man can find much to say…. Driving on west, Heat Moon observes that "there's something about the desert that doesn't like man." Visiting the Hopi reservation in Arizona, he has "no luck in striking up a conversation," and among the Navajo is bluntly snubbed…. (p. 124)

After being called "Tonto" [by a businessman in Michigan], the author seems to wake up, and to cease wishing to see the invisible things that full-blooded Indians see, and to exercise his eye more satirically, especially as upper-class Northeasterners hove into view…. Northeasterners, from Cheshire, New York, to Smith Island, Maryland, were the warmest people Heat Moon met—the most amusing and the least wary, the most giving. He was invited to eat dandelion salad and fried venison with an Italian family in the vineyard country of New York State, to tramp through an old-timer's sugar-maple farm in New Hampshire, to join a fishing expedition in Maine, to sing the praises of atomic submarines ("They're longer than the Washington Monument") in Connecticut, to have drinks and dinner in southern New Jersey, and to go on a private tour of a six-by-four-mile island in Maryland. The author has a few friends in this region, and some memories: he was once a sailor stationed at Newport. He walks Thames Street, sanitized and commercialized since the sixties, when it was "still a dark little guttery thing filled with the odor of beer and fried food and dimestore perfume," and remembers an old fisherman he met in a tavern where a parking lot now exists:

He'd lost a thumb to a kink in a line, but he believed he'd had a good life. Around his neck hung a small scrimshaw, showing a crude yet detailed image of the Holy Virgin, carved from the knuckle of his thumb. "Your own bone," he had said, "she's the best luck."

That carved bit of your own bone might have served better than the Hopi maze as the ruling metaphor for this book. By sticking to the back roads, Heat Moon by and large met Americans who have stayed put, where fate set them, gradually gathering dignity to their own lives from the continuing history of places like Shelbyville, Kentucky, and Melvin Village, New Hampshire. Their talk, where they do not grudge it, is firm and, within the tiny given periphery, authoritative. One doubts if life has many lessons they would have learned better by moving around. And one doubts, when "Blue Highways" and all its passing sights have been traversed, if William Least Heat Moon learned much about himself or about America that he could not have discovered in Columbia, Missouri. (pp. 125-26)

John Updike, "A Long Way Home" (© 1983 by John Updike), in The New Yorker, Vol. LIX, No. 11, May 2, 1983, pp. 121-26.