By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 14, 2010; B08
THE ROUTES OF MAN
How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today
By Ted Conover
Knopf. 333 pp. $26.95
Ted Conover is an admirably adventuresome journalist who isn't afraid to go places that most of us would go out of our way to avoid. He worked for almost a year as a guard at Sing Sing -- the subject of his well-regarded book "Newjack" (2000) -- and hit the rails with hoboes to research "Rolling Nowhere" (1985). He continues this pattern in "The Routes of Man," which takes him to several scary places, among them the Andes and jungle of Peru and the checkpoints of the West Bank. He is on the prowl for Deep Meaning, as he makes plain at the outset:
"In this book I present six . . . roads that are reshaping the world. I do it by joining up with people on them -- travelers to whom they matter in an immediate and practical way. The roads are presented roughly in order of increasing complexity, which is also the intentional order in which I traveled them over the past several years. Each has a theme: development vs. the environment, isolation vs. progress, military occupation, transmission of disease, social transformation, and the future of the city. Not each of the chapters is about a single road, precisely; one tells about a trip on a series of roads in China, and another about roads and streets in Lagos, Nigeria. Each is a story and a meditation."
Unfortunately this turns out to be a rather portentous way of saying that what we have here essentially are a half-dozen magazine pieces, stitched together in such a way as to resemble a real book but missing the thematic core that Conover strains to locate. The claim that these roads "are reshaping the world" simply doesn't hold up upon investigation. Yes, if the controversial project to build a superhighway connecting Peru and Brazil ever comes to fruition, it may dramatically alter South America's economy and ecology, and the incredible expansion of highways in China will have similar effects in that vast country. But these and the other matters Conover investigates are generally of local or regional importance rather than global.
Of course the claim that the subject under discussion in any given book "Changed the World" is such a commonplace nowadays that the only fit response is to roll one's eyes. It's best to put that out of your mind as you read "The Routes of Man," because it simply isn't applicable. Conover's six reports are variously interesting in and of themselves, and one shouldn't expect any more from them.
The book opens with the piece about Peru, which I admit to approaching with a heavily pro-Peruvian bias; I'm co-owner of an apartment in Lima, spend as much time there as circumstances permit, and care deeply about the country's welfare. Conover is exactly right to say that the proposal for a transcontinental highway raises issues that cannot be lightly dismissed, whether one's position is for or against the project. Talking with a businessman who admitted to milling mahogany in the Peruvian jungle -- in many instances this is illegal -- he was told that "developing the country by exploiting natural resources" was an argument that "deserved a serious hearing" because it has the potential to benefit the dirt-poor people of the mountains and the jungle. But on the other hand the exploitation of the jungle has serious environmental consequences -- for evidence, just look across the border to the ravaged Brazilian rain forest -- and endangers indigenous people who up to now have remained isolated from the modern world, with all its gains and losses.
It is "the dilemma faced by practically any country that was trying to feed its people while saving its nature at the same time -- which is to say, practically every nation on earth." It is merely a variation of the dilemma faced by India as it moves to construct a highway that would connect Ladakh, "the eastern, Buddhist part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir," in the country's far northwestern corner, to the main body of India itself, ending its remoteness and giving its people easier access to the world outside -- as well as binding them more closely to India than to Tibet, their neighbor and, for many of them, their true homeland.
At present, as has been true for many years, the people living in Jammu and Kashmir have walked along the iced-over Zanskar River so that their teenaged children can attend boarding schools elsewhere on "scholarships, offered by Europeans sympathetic to young Tibetan Buddhists in this poor, traditional part of the world." The new road now under construction -- very slowly, as work can only be done in the warmer weather between June and September -- will make this journey much easier and will provide India with faster access to its troubled border with Pakistan. But it will encourage young people to leave their mountain fastness for good, pursuing better opportunities elsewhere, and it will endanger the traditional culture treasured by many residents.
These first two chapters of "The Routes of Man" are the only ones in which construction of a new road is the central issue. In the others, Conover travels the highway in Kenya and Uganda, running from Mombasa through Nairobi and on to Kampala, that is thought to have been where the AIDS virus initially was transported and where it is still an appalling reality of daily life; he passes through the Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank, where "roads have shaped up as a principal battleground"; he takes a week-long auto tour in China with members of one of that country's many "car clubs"; and he hangs around with an ambulance crew in the incredibly dangerous Nigerian city of Lagos.
His purpose in all of this is to portray roads in all their variety: "Roads remain the essential network of the non-virtual world. They are the infrastructure upon which almost all other infrastructure depends. They are the paths of human endeavor." And "almost 1.5 percent of the surface area of the continental United States -- an area about the size of Ohio -- is now covered with 'impermeable surfacing': roads, parking lots, buildings, and houses. Roads constitute the largest human-made artifact on earth. American landscape architect J.B. Jackson concluded in 1980 that roads are 'now the most powerful force for the destruction or creation of landscapes that we have.' The siting of roads determines patterns of settlement, the locations of houses and businesses. The speed of cars upon them plays a role in how far from the road a structure will be. . . ."
All of which is true enough, but it's scarcely enough to hold this book together. I'm glad to have read the chapters on Peru and India, and I enjoyed the depiction of China's nascent road culture -- though Peter Hessler examines that subject to far more penetrating effect in his newly released "Country Driving" -- but the rest of the book never rises above competent, evanescent journalism. There's nothing wrong with that per se -- I'm guilty of it every time I write a review or anything else -- but it shouldn't be mistaken for more than it actually is.