Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

Through the backlanes of USA

BLUE HIGHWAYS - A JOURNEY INTO AMERICA

By William Least Heat-Moon
Picador

THE author, who got the idea at night, begins with a warning to all future dreamers - “Beware the thoughts that come at night”. Having lost his wife and job in quick succession he clung to an inspiration carved out of his desperation - “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go”.

And so it was that William Least Heat-Moon - the last name comes from his mixed Indian ancestry- packed a half ton Ford van and named it Ghost Dancing after the ritualistic dancing of the plain Indians of the late nineteenth century for the return of warriors, bison and the old fervour of life to sweep away the new. Ghost Dancing took him and his skeletal baggage (which almost inevitably contained Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) thirteen thousand miles around the back roads of America, in search of a vanishing everyday America and perhaps in search of himself. The result is an extraordinary, ample and eminently readable book.

These back roads were marked blue on the old highway maps of America. Even now at twilight and in the early dawn, the open road has a compelling blue which invites and engulfs. Following this blue haze, the 38-year-old Least Heat-Moon talks of strange things in strange places. He searches out towns with names as fascinating as Subtle, Love Joy, Fly, Miser Station, only, Milky Way, Peeled Chestnut, Clouds, Jackpot, towns which often consist of a lone filling station and as often are simply not there. And when he goes looking for a town called Nameless in Tennessee, you can get a taste of what Least Heat-Moon reads like:

“I don’t know if I got directions for where you’re going,” the ambulance driver said.
“I think there’s a Nameless down the Shepherdsville road.”

“When I get to Shepardsville, will I have gone too far?”
“Ain’t no Shepardsville.”
“How will I know when I’m there?"

“Can’t say for certain”.
“What’s Nameless look like?”
“Don’t recollect.”
“Is the road paved?”
“It’s possible”.

Those were the directions. I was looking for an unnumbered road named after a non-existent town that would take me to a place called Nameless that nobody was sure existed.”

Least Heat-Moon weaves a web of charming conversations interlaced with bits of introspection and humour. He writes at times, like Wolfe and Kerouac. He is less frenetic and often better. He proves that a man doesn’t have to be on a Benzedrine trip to see things on the road. Blue Highways is thus as much of a journey into the back lanes of America as a journey inwards in search of truths. He calls these the blue highway maxims and I can do little better than quote them-“Be careful going in search of adventure, it’s ridiculously easy to find” or “You never feel better than after you start feeling good after you’ve been feeling bad.”

And occasionally the maxim is tinged with painful home truths: “I can’t take any more” comes just before “I don’t give a damn”. Let the caring snap, let it a break to hell. Caring breaks before the man if he can only wait it out.

And all along, as he discovers a hidden town or a lost truth, Least Heat-Moon is secretly hoping to find a letter from his wife, or wondering whether he should give her a call.

Travelling along he develops a theory towards cafes and calendars. He believes that the quality of the cafes along the blue highway is revealed instantly by the number of calendars you see on the wall. With one or two calendars, the café does not merit a stop. Three or four calendar cafes are acceptable with their special merits being the farm boy breakfast or the homemade pie. And if it is a five-calendar extravaganza, it is to be kept a close and treasured secret. He goes into the cafes to cut the long stretches of loneliness, in search of conversations and insights and incidents like the one in Husky Café in a town called Shelby in Montanta. There the waitress slides a platter of three eggs down her arm.

“Only ordered two’, I said.
‘The eggs were small tonight.”

Collecting such gems, William Least Heat-Moon traveled clockwise around America through snow and desert firm in the belief that the traveler who leaves his journey to the open road finds unforeseen things coming to it. He comes across signboards, which offer candlelight weddings with free witnesses and no waiting. And a man who wants to write a book on his life and call it Ten Thousand Mistakes, since he has made them all and cannot even remember the first six thousand.

Blue Highways is one of those rare books that one wishes were longer. All too soon, William Least Heat-Moon is back where he started. “If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”