ROBERT McDOWELL

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

In Blue Highways: A Journey into America, William Least Heat Moon gives us an ambitious, aggressive, uneven tour of America's back roads and of his own self-awareness—or lack of it. Ultimately he neither succeeds nor fails. (p. 421)

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What better way to get a grip on one's life, to observe, learn, and start again? Familiar precursors, On the Road, Travels with Charley, encourage us to settle in for a valuable, vicarious journey into our country and ourselves. This is the principle strength of Blue Highways—its concept. We are all familiar with America's massive identity crisis, common enough in a young country. And some of us are aware, too, of the need for more beneath-the-surface portraits held up to its face, to our faces. The concept is strong. In its unraveling Heat Moon convinces me that he is telling the truth perhaps forty percent of the time. And that's the problem. It is not enough of a problem to warrant dismissal or condemnation, but it is enough to lace the praise I do have with some serious reservations. The ultimate problem for the reader is this: because he cannot believe the author half the time, he begins to wonder if he should believe him at all. This is a terrible corner for an author to write himself into. Heat Moon winds up there as a result of his sensibility and its literary expression, point of view.

Heat Moon's sometimes defective sensibility manifests itself in the snap judgments he makes of the people he meets along the way. If they are laid back, helpful, chatty, he is bound to wax poetic and philosophical about the mysterious bonds between us. If, however, they are truculent, grinding axes that are not sympathetic with Heat Moon's own, then they are haughtily dismissed as drones of the evil moneyed class. They deserve fast food, leisure suits, and plywood suburban tracts. A tangential bathetic feature consists of the numerous stops the narrator makes at college campuses for a place to sleep, a shower, a learned meal. Anyone who yearns for the fare of a college cafeteria has no business maligning the products of McDonald's, Hardees, and their swift relations. The narrator's judgments, in other words, are frequently simplistic, embodying clichés that make him sound like a dropout flower child of the sixties…. [There are several] examples in Blue Highways of Heat Moon's tendency readily to embrace pretentious, almost adolescent snap judgments. This alone will make the book appealing to teenagers, and they may become its most devoted, cultish readers. Unfortunately, the author has limited himself by apparently failing to realize that this is a book about also-rans. They are not only the hangers-on in strangled towns bypassed by interstates. They are not only the people displaced by progress, who feel most comfortable with yesterday, who take pride in their survival and endurance. The also-rans include the workers in towns beside the interstates, include the maligned human instruments of progress. What unites us is the self-questioning impulse. Heat Moon implies repeatedly that only the highly visible have-nots and outcasts are capable of self-analysis, worthy of praise. It just isn't so, and anyone who cares for the life around him knows it.

The other more glaring and serious example of Heat Moon's flawed sensibility consists of his inability to record faithfully the conversations of others. Though this is not true throughout the book, a number of the dialogues between the author and the people he meets sound far too literary to be real…. One wonders why the author felt the need to revise, to embellish the truth.

And yet, as I said before, this is not always the case. There are occasions when Heat Moon does not wear his learning immodestly on his sleeve, when his intention is not to work as a catalyst for consciousness-raising. There are moments when his concern for style does not embarrass the reader with precious poetry … or with feeble, Raymond Chandleresque attempts to inject more drama into a story … the power of which he may not wholly believe in. There are moments when Heat Moon's reportage is just and on target. Then he declines the stroking of ego so characteristic of the cocktail party bore. He declines the impulse to judge others; he goes out into the world bearing no grudge…. No message of lasting value will be delivered up through diatribe. The challenge to the writer is to understand, then communicate that understanding to others. One must be open-minded to attain this level. One cannot reach it by writing with a chip on one's shoulder from some personal fortress of defense.

Blue Highways is divided into ten sections, each bearing the name of the direction the author was heading in. For examples of Heat Moon at his best read section four, "South By Southwest," section five, "West By Southwest," and sections eight through ten—"North By Northeast," "East By Northeast," and "Westward." Heat Moon is humbled by the desert's bleak beauty and power and by the resonance of history along the northeast coast. This humility, imposed by the land and its peculiar gifts, is good for him. He listens well and faithfully records what he hears. Reading these sections is almost like reading the words of another writer than the one who parades his preconceptions through the South and glides through the West and Northwest like a somnolent visitor from an alien planet. Clearly he is not at home in these regions, and he mistakes what he expects to occur for what is actually occurring. But when he stops in Claude Tyler's barbershop in Dime Box, Texas, or discusses the religion of the Hopi Indians with an Indian student in Cedar City, Utah, or records the hard times of the Masucci family in New York, he succeeds in shifting the spotlight of his narrative from himself onto his true subjects. When exploring syruping operations under the tutelage of Tom Hunter in New Hampshire, or riding the trawler Allison E off Cape Porpoise, Maine, or spending a day with the elderly pepperpot, Alice Venable Middleton, on Smith Island, Heat Moon gives us memorable characters because he is not defending himself. He is involved in the fact that his characters are simply there, awaiting a gesture of recognition. This is the beauty of the first person narrative—the confession—when it is right. (pp. 421-24)

Advantages, disadvantages. Blue Highways: A Journey into America presents images of both. Still, it is a book well worth the reading for anyone interested in the peculiar problems of concept and point of view that accompany the first-person narrative. The glimpses of character which the book offers are glimpses into ourselves. Blue Highways has much to teach us about the travelogue that is confession; it also has much to reveal about the way we ought to perceive and about the dangers of faulty perception. (p. 424)

Robert McDowell, "In Pursuit of the Life Itself," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1983 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 420-24.

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