In May 2011, Philip Caputo, his wife, Leslie, and their two dogs set off, as the subtitle of this account of their journey has it, “In Search of America.” Their route was unusual — from the southernmost point in the United States at Key West to as far north as it’s possible to go by car, the town of Deadhorse, Alaska. Their means of transportation was out of the ordinary, too: a rented 1962 Airstream trailer, “as American as the prairie schooner, its bright aluminum body and rounded lines reminiscent of early racing airplanes,” towed by “a 2007 Toyota Tundra, a pickup capable of hauling a boxcar, [with] a hardtop shell for the truck’s bed to provide a home for the dogs.”
All of which is not without its interesting and engaging aspects, but the idea behind the journey was anything except unusual. People have been hitting the road “In Search of America” since, oh, Lewis and Clark headed west in 1804. Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Jonathan Raban — to name only three of the best-known — all did it and then published nonfiction accounts of their trips. Saul Bellow did it in his head and then made a novel out of it, “The Adventures of Augie March.” It’s frequently done by authors desperate for subjects to write about, preferably subjects that will attract advances from unwary publishers. Sad to say I did it myself two decades ago, and lived to write an almost uniformly mediocre book about my ramblings through the Mid-Atlantic states.
The petroleum-powered “Search for America,” in other words, has become more than a bit of a cliche, a relatively easy solution to the writer’s perpetual quest for subject matter and, into the bargain, an excuse to write off all expenses attendant to what ordinary people might think of as just a pleasant motoring vacation. Whether any of that flickered through Caputo’s mind is between him and his muse, and he seems on the whole to have enjoyed himself through most of his journey, but for the reader much of the way it’s more a grind than a joy ride, largely because one is never allowed to forget that Caputo has, or imagines he has, bigger fish to fry:
“In geology, a rift is a long, narrow zone where stresses in the earth’s crust are causing it to rupture. In North America, one such formation is the Rio Grande Rift, which is pulling apart at the rate of two millimeters a year. You might say, with considerable license, that it’s very slowly tearing the continent in half. I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for the stresses that seemed to be ripping our political and social fabric. But was the country really as fractured as it appeared in the media? As bitter and venomous? It wasn’t my intention to take the pulse of the nation; the United States is too big, too complicated a mosaic of races and nationalities and walks of life to have a single pulse or even two or three. But I thought I’d ask people, when possible, the question I’d put to myself: what holds us together?”
So off he went, digital recorder at the ready. Caputo is an experienced and capable writer, the author of 14 previous books, the first of which, “A Rumor of War” (1977), is widely regarded as the most honest and powerful depiction of the ground war in Vietnam as ordinary soldiers actually experienced it, but “The Longest Road” mostly feels pro forma by contrast with that unvarnished and painful memoir. His interviews with the people he encountered along the way are amiable but for the most part minimally informative. A good deal of the book, in fact, is less preoccupied with the people and places he encountered than with the minutiae of life on the road: the occasional marital tensions stirred by close quarters and frequent discomfort, concern about the health of the two English setters (one of whom was 12 years old), drinks drunk and meals eaten, Internet connections made and broken. This adds a personal touch to the tale, but a bit less of it would have sufficed.
Starting at the marker in Key West denoting the “Southernmost Point,” the two-vehicle Caputo caravan slowly made its way up to Miami, veered west along Alligator Alley, then began the long creep up the western side of a state that is, as Caputo notes, very long indeed: “What finger-shaped Florida lacks in breadth it makes up for in length; Tallahassee is 480 miles from Miami (farther than New York City is from Cleveland).” At a Starbucks outside Tallahassee, Caputo talked with a Republican politician who spoke sympathetically about the tea party but “was so civil and reasonable that I left feeling better about Republicans all around,” a gracious if somewhat grudging admission by a self-described “lefty.”
In Alabama, though denying that he is “a snooty northerner who thinks Yankees are enlightened and southerners bigoted,” he in fact encountered certifiable evidence of bigotry; but, on the other hand, in people helping each other dig out from under the wreckage in and around Tuscaloosa left by devastating tornadoes, he met with “a spirit of generosity arising from a recognition that we are not islands unto ourselves but parts of a greater whole.” Chalk that up, if you will, as part of the answer to the question this book purportedly seeks to answer, along with what Caputo found a few days later in a chat with a fellow in Tennessee: “the thing that distinguishes American optimism from other kinds is its faith that tomorrow will be brighter than today, no matter what the facts.” Maybe so, but some deeper digging and sharper questioning might have told us more about the state of American optimism in the age of the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
Then, just to prove that all in America today is not sunshine and Santa Claus, Caputo read a newspaper story reporting that a light-rail line “overwhelmingly” approved by voters in Seattle in 2008 had been single-handedly stalled by a wealthy real-estate developer who “thought that cars made America free and prosperous and that building mass transit was a socialist plot.” Caputo writes:
“I had been feeling pretty good about the country, much better than before we’d begun our travels. . . . Almost everyone we’d encountered had been kind and generous to us, reasonable in voicing their opinions when we asked for them. We’d heard from ordinary people some perceptive ideas about what put the unum in the American pluribus. I was encouraged and felt like whistling Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’ Now this newspaper story made me wonder if I was deluding myself. Did the thoughts and wishes and opinions of the common man and woman count any longer, assuming they ever had? Here was a project that had won broad public approval and could do nothing but benefit the public, and it had been stymied by one plutocrat flexing his financial biceps, as if to remind us all that Democracy in America has become a process not of one man, one vote but of one million dollars, one vote.”
Onward they progressed, finally landing in Deadhorse with 8,314 miles showing on the Toyota’s trip odometer and permitting Caputo to intone, with a singular lack of originality, that “in the end . . . the journey had been the destination.” Then, back in the Lower 48 after returning the Airstream to Erica, its owner, he decides that “it’s the perpetual conflict of extremes that generates the binding force” in America, but he gives the final word to her: “Hope. Isn’t that what it’s always been?” — a reminder, if an inadvertent one, that it’s against the rules to end a “Search of America” road book on anything except an upbeat note.
THE LONGEST ROAD
Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
By Philip Caputo
Henry Holt. 304 pp. $28