...and a by-in-large compatible wife. I've previously read two other books by Caputo, A Rumor Of War and Horn of Africa (Vintage Contemporaries). The first established his literary reputation; it is one of the classic books of the American war in Vietnam. After 35 years, it is due for a re-read and perhaps a reassessment. Of the two, (Horn of Africa) made a stronger impression on me, since I was "in the neighborhood" at the time, and the subject matter is far less "trodden ground." When this book popped up on my Vine list, figured it was an essential read. It recalled John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America (Penguin Modern Classics), one of the first books I ever read, and which provided an inspiration for a similar trip on my part over much the same route. Both books even share part of the same subtitle: "in search of America." Steinbeck's account is now dogged, as it were, by serious allegations that it was, to a major degree, fraudulent (among others accusations were that he had his wife with him, whereas he claimed he had traveled only with his dog, Charley). Caputo's account seems quite authentic, and if accusations surface in 50 years' time, well, neither he nor I will know about them.
"Father Time" was a major motivation for the trip. Caputo's father had just died, and he himself was approaching 70. And like many of us, he is concerned about the malaise, and centripetal forces that seems to be pulling America apart... so, why not talk to a few people about that, along the road, and determine their thoughts? As the title indicates, the road was long, and one not possible in Steinbeck's time: From the southernmost point in the continental United States, Key West, Florida, to the northern most point, accessible by road, Dead Horse, on Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. He leased on old-time (single axle) Air Stream, and camped along the way. It was a major achievement, and one that I envy, but he has a self-deprecating outlook so that he can relate the achievements of other travelers, such as the couple in their 50's who had walked from West Virginia to Florida; the French guy who traveled from Terra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay; and...hum... the mother and daughter who had taken a similar trip, but camped in a tent every night but three.
As one of his "day jobs," Caputo was a reporter, and thus capable of interviewing strangers, and drawing them out. And through various mechanisms he seeks out a variety of Americans to talk to, from volunteering to do some relief work in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama to stopping and talking to the citizens of Lebanon, Kansas, which is the geographic center of the 48 states (he later visits the geographic center of the 50, which is in South Dakota.) Lebanon, like so many other towns in the high plains, is in serious decline. For me, one of the more interesting vignettes that he relates occurs in Chicken, Alaska, but there were numerous others, including his stay in the Ozarks, and interviewing the woman who...hum again... fought the Federal government on a dam project, and won!
Caputo does inject his own opinions into the narrative, and much resonated with my own beliefs. Like many (the vast majority?) of Americans, we are concerned with the concentration of power, the "bigness" that is the threat to liberty. As the author says: "Maybe what had everybody, left, right and center, so upset was the recognition that we were the suckers in a game of Texas hold `em rigged by the Wall Street and K Street sharpies" (p. 53). Thus, I found a sharp point of disagreement on "immigration" all the more surprising. He stops in Grand Island, Nebraska, and discusses the dynamics among the Mexican, Somalian and Sudanese working at the meat packing plant. He frames the anti-immigrant argument in terms of racism, and never considers that it might be another part of that rigged game to hold down worker's wages, and have a more "pliable" work force.
Nonetheless, overall, a good look at America as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century. Don't think I need to issue a "spoiler alert" to state that, predictions to the contrary, their marriage survived the close confines of the Air Stream. Sage and Sky, the two hunting dogs also survived the trip in style, though Sage is now in that big hunting ground in the sky. 5-stars for the narrative on a great, inspirational trip.
A amazing journey across America from Key West to Alaska in an RV Philip Caputo's biography "The Longest Road" is fascinating, funny, poetic and wise. Philip (age 69) and his wife Leslie (age 56) and their two Irish setters journeyed across America from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 5,475 miles in 2011. Philip hauled his nineteen-foot rented 1962 Globetrotter Airstream called Ethel with his no-frills Chevolet called Fred. Although Philip wanted to do the journey earlier he became more motivated after his father died at age ninety-four in 2010. However the trip's main purpose was to talk to the people of America about what holds them together. Philip said after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression he also wanted to know if the country really was as divided, bitter and venomous as it appeared in the media. Although Philip and Leslie have been married for 23 years friends expressed concern about their spending four months in a RV space "smaller than a walk-in closet." When the warning of "severe marital thunderstorms" preyed on Philip's mind he asked another riddle. "What holds a marriage together?" Especially since he and his wife came from different religious and family backgrounds and had different personalities, temperaments and outlooks. However, their politics, love of literature, dogs, travel, conservation and their passion for the outdoors did align. Philip decided,... "in the final analysis love, the deepest wakan (mystery) of all, does not submit to rational analysis." Philip's fascinating, insightful and informative interviews with colorful characters kept me riveted to the end of his book. I also loved Philip's witty, poetic writing with phrases like "varnished in insect repellent" and walking the dogs "before the sun grew homicidal." Much of his writing made me smile and forever see the world differently. Philip Caputo is a former journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written many highly praised books of nonfiction and fiction.
The very concept of roadtrips are as American as apple pie, and the American road trip travelogue shows no signs of going out of style. This book is very much in the standard vein, an exploration of the American highways and by-ways, its people and towns, quirks and landmarks, a journey from Key West at the southernmost tip of the United States, all the way to Deadhorse in Alaska. Where it differs is that it does include a sizeable chunk of Canadian road trip, whilst on the way to Alaska. Impossible to avoid Canada if one is roadtripping to Alaska, of course!
Philip Caputo's central 'gimmick' (for lack of a better word) for his roadtrip, is to discover what it is about America that makes it hang together, when it comprises such a huge landmass, so many different and disparate peoples and cultures and worldviews. The reason I call it a gimmick is because in reality that is only a very minor subplot in his narrative, one he spends little time on and never comes to any kind of final conclusion - which is probably impossible anyway. Other than that, this book could sit aside any number of similar books on travels through the US.
It was an entertaining read, as so many such virtual tours through America are. America's diversity and scale are part of what makes these travelogues so enjoyable - I can think of few other countries that can boast such diversity of culture and geography, certainly an immense contrast to tiny little England! So entertaining, enjoyable, but with very little to distinguish it from the mass of similar titles.