Tag Archives: American literature

After Ferguson: driving and speaking around the Midwest

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

American Impunity Abroad and at Home

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

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.”

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

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.

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Where Is the American Writer Writing about America in Pakistan?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Here I am. That’s my short answer to the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s rhetorical question the other day in The Guardian. Here I am, an American, living in America, writing about America’s involvement – as well as my own – in Pakistan, and trying to catch the passing attention of some measurable fraction of the great distracted American public.

Shamsie’s words, at the tail end of a profile pegged on the release of her latest novel, were understandably exasperated. But they were also exasperating, because her question was used as the article’s attention-grabbing headline – it certainly grabbed my attention – and because, well, here I am.

It’s not about me, of course; I’m not saying that Kamila Shamsie should promote or even necessarily notice my writing in particular. But if someone like her is going to say things like what she said to The Guardian, then it’s both fair and, I hope, helpful for someone like me to point out that for her to paint with such a broad brush is both unfair and unhelpful.

What she said was: “I am deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, ‘Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?’ At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.”

The phrase “not of any individual writer” functions as a caveat, but otherwise her claims are un-nuanced to the point of being aggressively unequivocal: “total failure to engage … completely shocking failure.” I share Shamsie’s dismay, but I think it’s important to retort to her that it’s easier for a Pakistani writer living in London on a British passport to prescribe engagement with the American empire, than it is for an American writer living in America to practice it.

I’m not excusing anyone’s failure to engage, but several points need to be made. One is that America’s empire is not only global but also internal, and there are many examples of heroic American writers engaging with that, from Larry McMurtry to Octavia Butler to the great Peter Matthiessen, who just passed away at age 86. Two of Matthiessen’s most powerful testaments are the great Shadow Country trilogy, about the colonization of Florida, and the nonfiction feat of literary courage In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, about the notorious persecution of the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, the publication of which was suppressed for some years by legal action.

Another point is that the American public is supremely difficult to interest in anything, much less to mobilize. This profoundly frustrating phenomenon is easy to disdain or rage against, less easy to engage or challenge in any sustained or effective way. It’s like wrestling with a giant ameba. In fairness to Shamsie, this might be what she was getting at in saying that “At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.” It’s like the proverbial tree falling in a forest: If an American writer engages with the American empire, but no American readers read it, is the writer still engaging with the empire?

The American public’s chronic disengagement is a big part of what any American writer is up against. I deal with it myself, from the woman in the back of the room at a church in Seattle who – bless her heart – raised her hand to ask, “What’s a drone attack?” to some guy named Earl who, reviewing my book Home Free: An American Road Trip on Goodreads, quite inaccurately complained that I did not seek out white people and/or Americans with right-wing views: “the people that Mr. Casey talks to are either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” It’s apparent from internal evidence that Earl did actually read my book, which I appreciate, but his review is a telling confirmation of George Orwell’s observation that reviewers will find bogus literary excuses to dismiss books that challenge their ideological predilections.

But it’s important for us pointy-headed coastal and transatlantic types not simply to write off Middle America as a lost cause. This is personal to me, because Middle America (small-town Wisconsin) is where I come from. It’s also a big part of the reason that, having engaged at book length with the American empire in Pakistan and Haiti, I left the comfy liberal enclave of Seattle, where I live, to spend 3 1/2 months driving all around Middle America during the 2012 election season.

Finally, Shamsie’s privileging of fiction over nonfiction needs to be challenged. “I don’t think there’s anything like the novel for empathy,” she told The Guardian. “… If you write non-fiction it’s as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone’s eyes looking out, and that’s the difference.” Shamsie is a veteran novelist, and I’ve never seriously attempted to write fiction, but I don’t buy it. There’s a whiff of condescension in the claim, as if by definition nonfiction cannot be as serious or deeply engaged as fiction. As a veteran traveler, reporter, and writer of engaged nonfiction, I endorse Norman Mailer’s much subtler and truer claim that “there’s no clear dividing-line between experience and imagination.” For proof, and indeed for a supreme instance of an American writer’s engagement with the American empire, one need look no further than Mailer’s own nonfiction masterpiece The Armies of the Night.

Granted, that book was published 46 years and several wars ago. Which supports the point of Shamsie’s question: Where are the equivalent American books today? My point is that such books do exist, but it’s perpetually difficult for any writer to slip any message or story that Americans don’t already want to hear past the cacophony of American culture and through the fetid miasma of American nationalist pieties. And browbeating doesn’t work; I’ve tried it.

And “rage” – admittedly not Shamsie’s word but interviewer Natalie Hanman’s – is less useful than candor. It’s both possible and desirable, even necessary, to be at once candid and calm. This is why – if I may end as I began, on a self-congratulatory note – The Daily Telegraph‘s Alex Spillius identified the true subversive quality of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan (which I’m just now republishing in an updated 10th-anniversary edition): “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.”

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004; updated 10th-anniversary edition 2014), Home Free: An American Road Trip (2013), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012).

facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail