Tag Archives: America

Which side are you on?

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Seattle - On February 10, three young people were shot dead near their condominium building in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The young man and two young women were members of the same family, and they were Muslims. Their murder was either a hate crime or the regrettable result of a dispute over parking.

That it could well carry both meanings at once seems beyond the imagination of many Americans, determined as they are to avert their eyes from the obvious and to excuse themselves from feeling or expressing human sympathy for their fellow human beings  - and fellow Americans – whom they prefer to define as “foreign.”

Regardless of the motivation or state of mind of the killer Craig Stephen Hicks, the fact that his victims were Muslim matters, in a society that has allowed itself over the past 13 1/2 years to become thoroughly marinated in Islamophobia. Yes, we’ve been made this way by the appalling actions of the Muslim world’s extremist terrorists. But we also know darn well that the governments of the West, especially the United States government, have played it to their advantage. And, if we are honest, we’ve willingly colluded in our own manipulation.

On Wednesday, February 11, I felt a responsibility to write about the Chapel Hill killings because, as the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan, I have experienced the humanity of many Pakistanis as well as of many Pakistani-Americans and other Muslims here in the United States. To remind oneself and others of our shared humanity is not the same as “singing Kumbaya,” as many who style themselves hard-nosed realists like to put it. After 49 years on this planet – obsessively traveling all over this planet, in fact – I harbor no illusions about humanity being thoroughly wonderful, or about mutual understanding being an easy thing to achieve. I know that not all Muslims are wonderful human beings. But I also know that all Muslims are, in fact, human beings. And to insist that human beings should behave better than we do toward each other is the opposite of naive.

I titled my article “Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America.” I’m spurred to write again today because I’m appalled by the many comments it prompted on the Huffington Post and on my Facebook page: “Muslims are evil killers and need to be eradicated,” wrote one self-styled American patriot, Micheal Dorrell, on Facebook. “You people are evil and should be destroyed!” wrote another, Darren Simpson. Such words are hate speech. I would prefer not to name their authors, but they named themselves, and people should be held accountable for their words as well as their actions. When I suggested that surely the three young people in Chapel Hill didn’t deserve to be killed, Micheal Dorrell replied: “Yes casualty of war.”

The depression I’ve been feeling since then proves that words have power. But I decline to grant such words power over me. Sometimes I comfort myself by remembering Paul Farmer’s dictum that depression is a rational response to the state of the world. But that’s at best a bleak and shallow comfort. The only partially effective antidote that I’ve found, both to the state of the world and to the depression it engenders, is action.

But what kind of action? For starters, not violent action – there’s already too much of that. The form of action most readily available to me, as a writer, is to write. That – reclaiming language from both the terrorists and the state – is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. I remind myself daily of something Albert Camus, who seems daily more freshly relevant, said: “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Another form of action available to us Americans is to train ourselves to cease clinging to an outdated and untenable national way of life. Here is how I put it in a speech to TCU students on January 15:

More and more these days, I feel that the need of our times, for those of us who have been accustomed to enjoying a middle-class American way of life, is to begin cultivating an attitude of what Buddhists call non-attachment. Buddhists – as well as serious practitioners of other religions, including Christianity – understand that true freedom has a lot to do with teaching ourselves not to want things that we don’t really need. In other times and places, dictatorships have flourished with at least the tacit acquiescence, and often the active support, of their society’s middle class, the portion of society that usually cherishes security and stability more than freedom and justice.

The other thing all of us need to face is a question: Which side are you on? The sides we have to choose from are, emphatically, not “the West” and “Islam.” Our choice – your choice – is between the side of humanity and the side of war. Are innocent young Muslim dental students in North Carolina merely casualties of war, as Micheal Dorrell claims to believe? If you believe that, then you support the notion that the human race will and should remain in a state of universal and perpetual war. If we want any future better than that, we must allow ourselves to believe in and work toward such a future, hard as that is to do.

I don’t know, specifically, everything that the following implies, but here is a starting point: Those of us who would preserve and renew humane society must become as active and assertive as the terrorists and other bullies. Real counterterrorism lies not in governments setting up police states ostensibly to protect us, but in us – each of us ordinary people – not only declaring that enough is enough, but turning off our televisions and laptops, getting off our couches, and demonstrating that we actually mean it.

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Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America

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Plymouth, Michigan, Feb. 11 - We don’t yet know what effects the Feb. 10 murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will have on Muslims around America or elsewhere, or on the rest of us. For starters, it will anger many Muslims. It already has, and it should. No matter what wrong things some Muslims do, that doesn’t mean that other Muslims who have done nothing wrong deserve to be killed. If you want to know what Muslims are thinking and saying – and you should – follow the #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter hashtags on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that some Muslims, as tragically disturbed and misguided as Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks clearly is, will take matters into their own hands. That’s one thing I’m afraid of. But I’m also afraid of the opposite: that Muslim communities around the United States will be terrorized into cowering timidity.

It’s not for me to tell them that they should do otherwise. Each of us makes a perpetual series of moment-by-moment calculations about how to live in the world both safely and with integrity, and acting with public courage can be physically dangerous. And what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha underscores a widespread and largely admirable fact about American Muslims: they want to get along, pursue middle-class professions, raise families, live in suburbs, make themselves useful to society, help the needy. Through my writing and speaking I know many American Muslims, including many students very much like the three who were killed, and my sense is that most of them would strongly prefer not to be doing things like marching in the streets.

But the parallel that was promptly rendered explicit by the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag is too obvious to ignore. As DeRay Mckesson, one of the Ferguson movement’s most vocal leaders, told a writer for Salon magazine, “We still protest every day, because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.” What implications Muslims might draw for their own public activities in American society is, of course, for them to decide. But one thing I know is that, in America, if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

Some Muslims that I know personally are already doing some of what needs to be done. My Pakistani-American friend Nadeem Iqbal, for example, arrived to study at – of all places – North Carolina State University in 1982, and stayed. Nadeem organizes an annual public Eid festival in the town of Cary, very near Chapel Hill. “The main motive,” Nadeem told me, “was that we live in America, we need to celebrate our religious festivals in this new environment, and we have to add that flavoring. We are celebrating it as an American holiday event.”

When I asked Nadeem why he felt such work was important, he told me:

My children and their children are going to live in this country, and they should be treated fairly. But the only way it can happen is for them and us to become part of the greater fabric. I’m not talking about assimilation, but about being able to participate in American society on an equal basis, without fear or compulsion. … Doing religious stuff is important from the religious point of view and the social point of view, but getting involved in the larger society is equally important.

A parallel challenge and opportunity exists for Americans who, like me, grew up in all-white or white-dominated small towns or suburbs. My friend Sarah Derry grew up in the town of Hubbell, pop. 1,105, in Houghton County in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It’s just in the wake of the old mining ruins,” she told me. “When they talk about small towns in America, this is one of them. It’s a pretty conservative place.”

A couple of years ago, when Sarah’s father was staying with her for a few months in a Detroit suburb, she took him to the Shatila Bakery, a well-known establishment in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn. “I found out about it from a guy I work with who’s Iraqi,” she told me. “My father is not the most open-minded person. As we were driving down there I told him, ‘Poppy, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people there. They’ll be wearing a lot of headscarves, so don’t act all shocked.’”

An Arab man held the door open for Sarah’s father, and “they had a chuckle” because the man explained that it’s a tradition to show respect for elders. “We got our desserts and sat down,” Sarah remembers. “And when we left Poppy said, ‘Well, they seemed pretty nice. They seemed just like normal people.’”

While Sarah was glad to witness this “ah-ha” moment in her father’s life, she was also impressed that her teenage son was unimpressed, as if his grandfather’s insight were merely a statement of the obvious. “I’m glad I’m raising Erik in a place where there’s different races and cultures, because that’s the way the world is,” Sarah told me. “I want him to be a functioning member of society.”

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After Ferguson: driving and speaking around the Midwest

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyEthan Casey, author of Home Free: An American Road Trip, is planning a follow-up trip through the Midwest in the fall of 2015 to document the attitudes, aspirations and worries of Americans and in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere nationwide since the summer of 2014. He will be writing an account of that 2-3-week trip to supplement Home Free. Along the way he plans to speak at colleges, high schools, civic clubs and religious congregations. Destinations will include Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Ethan Casey Saut d'EauTo invite Ethan to speak to your group during his fall 2015 Midwestern trip, or to learn more about his travels and writings, contact Ethan directly at ethan@ethancasey.com or through his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author

About Home Free: An American Road Trip:

Over  3 1/2 months and more than 18,000 miles between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, during and just after the presidential election, author Ethan Casey, whose previous books include Alive and Well in Pakistan and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, drove clockwise through every region of the contiguous United States, starting and ending in Seattle.

His purpose was to do what reporters and travel writers should do, and what he had done previously in books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up on the ground in person, seek out interesting and representative people, listen to their stories and points of view, take notes, then later sit down and stitch together a coherent narrative. His intention was to get away from the liberal echo chamber of his home city, catch history on the fly, and craft a nonfiction narrative account of America circa 2012 that will echo forward and remain relevant and readable for years to come.

Ethan’s itinerary included in-depth conversations with a few notable public figures such as the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat in Miami and Enron scandal whistleblower Sherron Watkins in Houston, but most of the people he met were ordinary Americans from a variety of backgrounds, in every region of the country. What he found they all had in common was that they were struggling to make sense of the confusing and uncertain times we’re all living through.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, says: “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.”

And Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, considers Home Free better than the most famous of all American road trip books:

Just as John Steinbeck did in 1960 for his classic Travels With Charley, in the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey set out by car to discover – and document – the pulse of America and its people. Steinbeck’s ambitious search for his country was a failure, as the great author himself admitted. But Home Free is travel journalism at its finest. Casey delivers a valuable snapshot of 2012 America and its most contentious political and social issues.  Best of all, he introduces us to a rich cross-section of good, smart and thoughtful Americans who tell their stories and express their opinions fully on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the death of Detroit. Home Free is, in a real sense, the American road book Steinbeck set out to write but didn’t.

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Pakistan and the Tragedy of Our Time

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AliveandWell-front-smThere’s a certain glibness prevalent in the discourse of the ostensibly liberal Western and Westernized world today that’s epitomized by the vapid Google slogan “Don’t be evil.” That’s much easier said than done. A few days ago Dick Cheney was all over America’s gravitas-laden Sunday talk shows, speaking as if for me and my country, claiming that there is no comparison between CIA “tactics” (yet another euphemism for torture) and the actions of terrorists. But is that a comparison we want to make, as if evil justifies more evil? My mother taught me long ago that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Moral and intellectual clarity about the world we live in are not compatible with self-exculpating glibness. Our adversaries’ wrongness does not mean we are in the right. The substance of the terrorists’ victory lies exactly in their indisputable success in having persuaded Western societies to endorse and empower our own authoritarian regimes, and to acquiesce in what seems certain to become a perpetual police state and de facto endless war.

It’s not either/or, nor is it “us” in the West versus “them” in the Muslim world. Terrorism is evil. So is the police state we’re constructing to combat it. The tragedy is that after 9/11 we did have a choice in how to respond, and we largely blew it, first and foremost by initiating the unnecessary and immensely damaging Iraq war in 2003. To reflect on that is to know the bitter irony in Cheney’s defiant assertion that he would do it all again. And if we don’t accept how very wrong we were, morally, politically, and historically, to invade Iraq, then we will never achieve either understanding or peace.

These things were on my mind already, and then the Sydney cafe siege happened … and then, early Tuesday morning in Seattle, I awoke to the news of the terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar. At 6:27 a.m. Seattle time I read a message from Shaheryar Azhar, who for years has been rather heroically doing his part to keep moderate discourse in and about Pakistan alive by running a thoughtful moderated email forum. “Once again, a great tragedy has struck Pakistan,” he wrote.

TTP [Pakistani Taliban] terrorists chose the softest target possible, one that would have maximum effect – a large public school in Peshawar that at the time was full of children. As of now more than 130 deaths have been confirmed, most of them of children between ages 9 and 16 with about 200 injured. A large number of the dead kids belonged to serving army personnel.  Media reports indicate that there are still terrorists holed-up in the school premises. This dastardly act was clearly a cowardly response from an emasculated TTP in response to Zarb-e-Azab, the military operation going on in North Waziristan against the militants.
Having myself studied at the Cantonment Public School in Peshawar and having worn similar striped blue and yellow tie that I see from chaotic images on the TV as I write these words I suddenly feel very old and very broken. My heart pierced, a gaping hole inside, barely able to muster enough energy to send this message. But this will not weaken us.
This Forum has from the beginning of the conflict called TTP, Taliban, terrorists, non-state actors, whatever name you want to give them, an existential threat to Pakistan. That is, all politics and all other economic and social issues collapse into this one single issue. If we don’t get this right, nothing will ever be right. If we don’t unite on this issue, there will be nothing left to unite for or against [his emphasis].

There is a profound poignancy in Shaheryar sahib’s words that any annotation from me would only diminish. The tragedy for the many patriotic Pakistanis I know and admire is that the state in which they still place their hope against the terrorists is itself severely damaged and compromised. Their best hope is not very good at all. But Pakistanis are not alone in having only bad options; that is the case for us Americans as well. The wheels are coming off here as well as there, and the only discernible upside is that, amid all the confusion and violence still to come, we might eventually arrive at a better understanding of ourselves and our situation.

Both understanding and comfort are available to us from history, and our most urgent compulsion is to seek out and amplify the most humane voices and witnesses, both present and past. I just bought and plan soon to read Albert Camus’s long-neglected Algerian Chronicles, recently published in English for the first time. As an Algerian-born Frenchman, Camus watched helplessly as his two countries fought a war to the bitter end, loss and bloodshed the only result for all involved. In her 2013 review in The New York Review of Books, Claire Messud writes that

Camus’s profound rejection of terrorist violence is obvious in all that he said and wrote on Algeria, not least in his famous (and often misquoted) exchange with the Algerian student in Stockholm, where he said, “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” Acutely sensible to pain and suffering, Camus could not condone it anywhere: “I am not made for politics,” he wrote in his notebooks in November 1945, “because I am incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary.”

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American Impunity Abroad and at Home

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A university in Texas has asked me to speak to students in January on the subject that we’ve come to call by the shorthand “Ferguson,” and I’ve been wondering what to say. It’s a topical and rhetorical landmine. But the world today is one giant minefield, so the only way to avoid the risk of stepping on a mine is to acquiesce in silence and paralysis. I’m not willing to pay that price for safety, because both personal freedom and the fate of American society are at stake.

Part of the problem with “Ferguson” is precisely that we’ve hastened to make it a shorthand term, the better to pigeonhole it or explain it away, not unlike “Sandy Hook” or “Katrina” or “9/11.” The truth is that each of those events is connected to every other; everything is connected to everything else. The source of our self-induced perpetual confusion is our stubborn insistence on slicing and dicing events, then filing them severally in convenient pigeonholes in order to forget about them, because we find connecting and remembering too painful and demanding.

These musings are on my mind now, because of the long-awaited release of the report detailing just how viscerally and morally disgusting has been the CIA’s torture regime worldwide since 2001. I’m appalled, of course, like any right-thinking person, and ashamed, as every self-respecting patriotic American should be. But to say that is very far from sufficient, and the fact that so many of us “like” each other’s well-meaning, self-satisfied liberal pieties and commentaries on Facebook is actually part of the problem.

But what does torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA have to do with “Ferguson,” anyway? All too much. The connection lies in the demonstrated fact of impunity for those who hold brute power. How is it that CIA interrogators on one hand, and urban and suburban police officers on the other, can intimidate, brutalize, and even kill hapless and/or innocent unarmed civilians, and get away with it? The answer in both cases is the same: because we, the innocent bystanders, are afraid of what will happen if we hold them to account. We’re afraid not only for our own physical safety, but also of what we would learn if we admitted that the state under which we live has squandered its moral and political credibility.

Consider all due caveats about the honest service and good intentions of most police officers and even CIA agents duly inserted here. But those are irrelevant, because the reality of severe abuse by at least some in both categories is too obvious to ignore. The men with guns and tanks and riot gear know that they can misbehave with impunity because – to articulate our situation with brutal candor – they have guns and tanks and riot gear, and we don’t. That is the case both overseas and in nondescript Midwestern suburbs, and therein lies the connection.

If what we really want is to understand, then what we need is to find the courage to face the reality of what the state is and does. There are real terrorists in the world who commit real, despicable acts of terrorism. But what the CIA torture report lays bare is that the American imperial state, under the feckless ostensible leadership of any president, considers a terrorist anyone it sees fit to consider a terrorist, and that it considers itself and its personnel entitled to mistreat such people any way it sees fit, with impunity. Meanwhile, on the home front, as a friend of mine remarked recently, “The line between a long march or protest rally and an urban riot is drawn by the state, and enforced by the police.” Impunity is what makes the state the state.

What this means is that none of us is either safe or free, except to the extent that we are willing to be free in our own minds and spirits. Necessary to maintaining personal freedom is accurate awareness. One thing that’s accurate to say is that those of us who are white Americans have enabled the American state’s impunity, by mumbling to ourselves and each other that the terrorists are Muslim and brown and the urban rioters are black. We’ve averted our eyes because we have not personally been on the front lines, and we’ve drunk our own Kool-Aid. Others don’t enjoy such luxuries. But there is an upside to living life on the business end of the state’s bootheel, as James Baldwin knew circa 1963:

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the rightness of our own actions and intentions. But it’s precisely human nature that is the problem; the fact that human evil is predictable does not make it excusable. Nor does fobbing off the evil on singularly evil individuals like Hitler or bin Laden or Cheney. We must be willing to consider ourselves culpable, and to put ourselves at risk.

Innocence insisted on too strenuously is tantamount to guilt. Graham Greene depicted the sinister aspect of American innocence abroad with exquisite insight in The Quiet American, his novel of Vietnam published in 1955. At home in the same period, no one saw America more clearly than James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know and do not want to know it. It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”

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Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

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CarsickEvery American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.

Still – and regrettably –  any of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Reflecting on his own planned trip in his prologue, John Waters makes the requisite reference, though he makes it with an admirably critical eye and purpose:

Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh-oh. Could that be me?

But – before I tell you how wonderful Carsick is, which it is, I’m compelled to take Waters to task for a sloppy reading of the New York Times coverage of the unmasking of Steinbeck’s fraud. Bill Steigerwald, the man who busted Steinbeck, is a friend of mine. And the reason he’s a friend of mine is that, after reading the same April 2011 Times article that John Waters read, I was so impressed that I made a point of stopping in Pittsburgh and taking Bill to lunch on my own drive around America for my book Home Free. Bill deserves credit for a genuine mighty feat of reporting, and he rightly seizes every opportunity to claim the credit that he deserves. It wasn’t the New York Times, and it certainly wasn’t the cozy coterie of scholars Bill dubs the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex, who painstakingly read the original manuscript of Travels with Charley at the Morgan Library, then doggedly drove around America and documented Steinbeck’s specific failures and evasions in a wonderfully entertaining book aptly titled Dogging Steinbeck. It was retired Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald who did those things, and no one else.

So I hope that Waters sees fit to give Bill due credit in future editions of Carsick. That said, Carsick is a wonderful American road trip book in its own right. Apropos the passage quoted above, it really is three road trips in one: two fictional, one real. The book’s first section imagines “The Best That Could Happen,” the second “The Worst That Could Happen,” and the final section relates Waters’s actual trip. Waters would no doubt be amused to learn that a friend of mine (who is gay, which is relevant to much of the sometimes profane subject matter) read the prologue inattentively and got almost through the first section before realizing – or rather being told by me – that it was made up. The first two-thirds of the book is no less enjoyable for being fictional; in fact, both the “Best” and “Worst” trips are jaw-dropping, page-turning exercises in imagination (sexual and otherwise).

After all the shocking and appalling made-up misadventures, it’s a relief to read about Waters’s actual trip, which was plenty adventurous enough for a man of sixty-six, especially when you remember that Waters didn’t even drive but hitchhiked. Bill Steigerwald traveled at a similar age and also, as he puts it, doglessly. I agree with Steigerwald’s dictum that, if you’re planning to make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband/spouse/partner/whatever). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, well known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center watching the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple.

Caputo’s whole conceit is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Nome, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States of America is, effectively, an empire. My own very different summing-up at the end of Home Free  is that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”

Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both show that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book. Carsick is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book he frets alternately about whether he will or won’t be recognized, and he carries – and once or twice makes use of – an actual “fame kit” that he had his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?”

The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be something of a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes somewhere in the desert in Nevada, near the end of the real trip, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”

I could quote endlessly from Carsick, which tells you something. Enjoy it for yourself. Among its greatest pleasures are the many paragraph-length gems of narrative whimsy, so true to the reality of American road-tripping (and so very different from anything either Steinbeck or Caputo offers). Here’s just one from Waters, temporarily stranded in Bonner Springs, Missouri:

I see the dreaded Holiday Inn but don’t go near it. I stumble into a convenience store and buy two giant bottles of Gatorade and another bottle of Evian. Exiting, I spot a Taco Bell, the only fast-food joint I’m ever tempted to patronize in my real life. I enter, plop down my even heavier bags now that the liquids are inside, and get in line to order. I flash on Lana Turner, who, her daughter Cheryl Crane once told me, was an early financial backer of Taco Bell, and think how I couldn’t be any further away from Hollywood glamour than right now. All the normal people on their lunch break look like aliens to me. I’m almost jealous of their lives. I order two tacos and sit by myself in a booth awaiting my number to be called, hoping to be recognized, but customers just stare back at me blankly. I guzzle down an entire bottle of Gatorade, then another. I feel like sobbing as I walk up to get my order but control myself, sit back down, and eat my tacos. With lots of hot sauce, they’re pretty tasty. I hope Lana Turner’s estate made a small profit.

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