William Least Heat-Moon ROBERT McDOWELL - Essay

William Lewis Trogdon


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

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...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)