Quo Vadis?

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Reviewed by Richard Grant
Sunday, December 14, 2008


An American Mosey

By William Least Heat-Moon

Little Brown. 581 pp. $27.99

As the title of his new book suggests, William Least Heat-Moon has a great fondness for whimsical wordplay: cute puns, clever rhymes and alliterations, quaint and quirky vocabulary. This, his fourth travel book about the byways and backwaters of America, opens with a lengthy "quodlibet" to the letter Q: "Is there another letter with such a high percentage of words both jolly and curious, so many having to do with quests and questions and quintessences? Is it not a letter of signal q-riousness?" Of all the words that begin with "q," the one that beguiles him most is "quoz," an antique noun that rhymes with Oz and refers to anything strange, incongruous or peculiar.

It also provides him with a handy organizing principle for a collection of rambling, disconnected journeys. By framing them as a quest for quoz, Least Heat-Moon gives himself free rein to go anywhere and write about anything that takes his fancy.

Accompanied by his wife, Jo Ann, whose nickname is Quintana and hence "Q," he begins by exploring the valley of the Ouachita River (pronounced Warsh-taw) in Arkansas and Louisiana, and finds quoz in old-timey quilt patterns, pre-Columbian mounds, an account of a forgotten 1884 expedition and, most vividly, the company of one Indigo Rocket, an artist who has crammed a cabin with strange illuminations and found objects, creating "an emporium to disorient one's sensorium."

Then it's down to the Gulf coast of Florida, where the pickings aren't so easy. Searching for old waterfront saloons, he and Q discover that nearly all of them are gone, supplanted by quoz-free developments and sprawl. These are difficult times for someone of Least Heat-Moon's sensibility. The America he loves and writes about is authentic, regional, rooted in the land and its history; what's replacing it holds no interest for him. He scorns interstate highways, air travel, suburbs, commercialism, consumerism, electronic devices of all kinds -- "whizz-bizzles," he calls them -- and informs us that his drafts proceed from pencil to fountain pen.

His first book, Blue Highways, published nearly a quarter-century ago, was a break-out bestseller, largely because it assured its readers that America still had plenty of quirky charm, wild stories and colorful characters in its hinterlands. These days he seems to find his best material in history books and libraries. In Joplin, Mo., he delves into an old newspaper collection and comes out with a dazzling 40-page account of a murder and trial that took place in 1901. He solves a longstanding mystery about the case and then, with a final devastating sentence, reveals why he became so obsessed with it. His old road notebooks also supply some wonderful stories, including one about a wounded Korean war veteran who gave sexual favors to wealthy widows in return for money to build a school for troubled children.

Considering that his most recent travels with Q lasted three years and 16,000 miles, it's surprising and a little disheartening how little contemporary or surviving quoz they actually furnish. What fills the pages instead is the couple's banter and their ponderings on the nature of travel, modernity, existence and other topics. Mostly these are interesting and intelligent, although sometimes stylistically overwrought: "While probablists can do little more than postulate the possibility of a post-corporeal journey along a river, they can unquestionably make a verifiably veritable one (in what some "believers" consider our pre-afterlife)." On almost every page is an item of arcane vocabulary, and one page alone contains orogeny, acrophobe, flinder, tokus and feculence.

This is a book with some superb passages, but to appreciate the whole of it you need to share Least Heat-Moon's love of wordplay. You need to smile expectantly when you turn the page and find a chapter heading like "What the Chatternag Quarked" or "In Hopes Perdurable Reader Will Not Absquatulate." Waiting at the end of the book, as a bonus or a final penance, depending on your point of view, is a list of 250 made-up words beginning with quoz- and titled "The New Quozicon, One-Quarter-Thousand Quozo-Neologisms." ยท

Richard Grant is the author of "God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre."

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