Problems or Stories?
To make a long story short, in the fall of 2012 I drove around America and wrote a book about it. I traveled clockwise beginning and ending in Seattle, where I live. The idea was to do for my own country something like what I had done in previous books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up in other people’s communities, display a lively interest in their stories and whatever might be on their minds, listen to them and take notes, then write a narrative account that would have some of the immediacy and topicality of journalism, along with at least some prospect of more lasting literary or historic relevance. I kept in mind, as I always do, Paul Theroux’s wise words in his essay “Travel Writing: The Point of It,” in which he advocates writing that is “prescient without making predictions” and argues: “I have always felt that the truth is prophetic, and that if you describe what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, no matter what the mood of your prose.”
Part of my premise being that an election is a telling moment in a country’s story, I planned for about half of my three-and-a-half-month American road trip to take place on each side of Election Day. Of course I didn’t know whether President Obama would be reelected or Mitt Romney would defeat him, but I wanted to be out there around America both before and after the result, whatever it was going to be, in order to detect and document whatever hopes and worries Americans of various shapes and sizes, communities and factions, might express in my hearing. I did seek out a few particular, notable people – in Miami, the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat; in Houston, the Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins and the Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa – but, by design, most of the people I met were “just folks” of one kind or another.
Apropos Theroux’s dictum, I didn’t know, really didn’t want to know, what would befall America after the period of my trip. Predictions are like policy recommendations: marks of mediocre imagination. The point was to be alert and attentive in the moment itself. Near the end, as a kind of trance overtook me along the endless empty highways of the West, I began to fantasize about not stopping at home in Seattle after all, but rather turning right and doing it all over again. My wife would not have appreciated my doing that, and anyway I was exhausted. But, aside from the fact that by that point my car had become my world, the appeal of the conceit lay in the notion that, the second time around, I could do an entirely different route. Indeed, the so-called United States of America are so vast and various that one could circumnavigate them endlessly for a lifetime and never visit the same places or encounter the same cross-section of American society twice.
My trip was enriching and instructive, but I remain keenly aware that it was partial and incomplete. Since writing Home Free: An American Road Trip, I’ve toyed with a few versions of a sequel. One might have been, still might be, an overland journey from the native communities at the end of the road in the Panamanian jungle to the booming 21st-century tech metropolis of Seattle, along the way doing a bit more justice to Native American and Hispanic communities as well as to California, which I rushed through the first time because I was tired. Another idea was/is to tour cities, suburbs, and small towns around the Midwest – say, from Kansas City to Cincinnati – noting the post-Ferguson state of racial feelings and of relations between citizens and police. But, as Richard Nixon regrettably (because his wife was named Pat) said, America can’t stand pat. America certainly never does stand pat long enough for me or any other writer to get any real handle on it. And I now find myself wondering, with a very rueful kind of pride, whether the real accomplishment of Home Free might end up being that it documented the moods of the country during the last normal presidential election in American history, just before the wheels came off.
Now what? A writer in America circa 2016 faces questions of how, and even whether, to write about the period of extreme and disorienting flux the country is enduring. What’s particularly frustrating if you think about it, which I try not to, is that surely anything that needs to be said about what’s going on is already being said, by someone, somewhere out there on the Internet. So why bother saying anything more? Why not keep one’s head below the parapet until the storm blows over?
I’m not really sure why. What I can tell you is when. I conceived and began writing this essay in the midst of the strange and shifting confusion of the presidential primary season, in late February and early March 2016. My original plan was to exercise patience, to sustain lucid attention, at least until Election Day or thereabouts, before completing and publishing it. Along the way I decided to publish it sooner than that, into the moment, but I still hope it will prove of enduring usefulness and interest. What is the right context in which to situate ongoing events? The question never has a right answer. But the challenge of writing about topical events, unless you want what you write to line the proverbial birdcage tomorrow, is to foreground longer-term relevance by being prescient without making predictions. Otherwise you’re just another member of the madding crowd, all endlessly chattering past each other.
There’s something more than faintly ridiculous about trying to write about, much less run, a Rube Goldberg contraption as massive and complicated as the United States of America. That’s one reason we tend to resort to abstractions and pieties, both in the running and in the writing. And what to write? A nonfiction narrative, a news report, a novel, an essay? The matter of which genre to write in might seem like inside baseball or shop talk, for writers to discuss only among themselves. But it’s actually crucial for both writer and reader, because language is fundamental to human experience, and our use of language expresses our understanding of our experience. Is there any such thing as “just the facts, ma’am”? And is our world – or, somewhat closer to home, our country – a set of problems to be solved by contrivances like public policy, or a collection of stories to be told?
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.