Crisscrossing the Nation on Highways Large and Small
Zoellner surveys different manifestations of malaise: the decline of the normal porn film business in “the opposite Hollywood,” L.A.’s San Fernando Valley; a St. Louis suburb suffering from racism, redlining and corruption; the Nevada desert, the place generations of fortune hunters have sought treasure above and beneath floor, in casinos and in gold mines, which, when they’re stripped naked, depart behind ghost cities marked by poisonous piles of tailings. “The Nationwide Highway” is certainly not a difficulty guide, but it surely says extra about predatory late-capitalism than many works that assault the subject head-on. The guide’s titular essay refers back to the first freeway constructed by the federal authorities, which stretched west to Joliet, In poor health., from Cumberland, Md. Zoellner follows the outdated street and finds it lined with Greenback Normal shops, the low cost “little-box” franchise that caters to — and, Zoellner suggests, exploits — impoverished rural communities. It’s grim stuff, however Zoellner is aware of that even the bottom finish of the American retail market holds a gaudy attract. Strolling the aisles of a Greenback Normal, he notes, “is like strolling into a colourful explosion of name-brand confetti: packages of Crayola, Viva paper towels, Dixie cups, Acquire detergent, Energizer batteries, Fructis shampoo.”
Zoellner is a gorgeous author. He’s additionally a busy one, susceptible to occasional flights of poetastery. (“The moon was summer-fat that night time.”) In an essay about “peakbagging,” Zoellner’s quest to climb to the very best spots in all 50 states, you sense that the writer has emptied out his thesaurus to keep away from typing the phrase “mountain”: “light pimple of farmland,” “massive swell of grassland,” “proud wedge of quartz,” “noble wintry dome.”
However these distracting moments of writerly writing are few. Zoellner is an excellent reporter and a deep thinker, with a command of the centuries-long again story. He understands how historical past has been altered by People’ quirky non secular yearnings and eschatological obsessions. He has his personal premonitions of finish occasions. A chapter about King Philip’s Warfare, the bloody late-Seventeenth-century battle between Indigenous tribes and New England colonists, culminates in a imaginative and prescient of ecological apocalypse: Zoellner stands on the shore of Cape Cod, the ancestral territory of the Wampanoag, and imagines the rising seas spilling over the earth. The Europeans who got here to this continent wreaked havoc on the panorama, disrupting ecosystems and agricultural practices, whereas waging warfare on Native populations and ravaging them with illness. Now, Zoellner suggests, historical past could also be doubling again on a settler-colonialist nation: An much more fearsome invader is rearing up on the shoreline, threatening to roll in on the waters that introduced the Pilgrims to Cape Cod in 1620.
This isn’t the one place that “The Nationwide Highway” invokes local weather change. Within the guide’s jauntiest chapter, about Zoellner’s habit to cross-country street journeys, he talks about guiltily pumping fuel into his automobile, figuring out that “this zesty vegetative remnant of the prehistoric world” will contribute to carbon emissions. But he retains filling the tank, and retains guzzling his personal gasoline, the power supply that powers his marathon drives — fuel station espresso, “heavy sugar, heavy lightener.” “The driving urge might also be an extension of Eros, the life drive,” Zoellner writes. “And so I suppose my urge to knock off courthouses, contact the edges of civic monuments … is an indirect methodology of making an attempt to pack as a lot Americana into the manuscript of reminiscence as potential.” The nation’s splendor and depravity could also be irreconcilable; its mysteries could also be insoluble. However for Zoellner and different stressed voyagers, there’s nonetheless a lot America on the market in case you level your wheels in the best route, towards the ever-receding horizon.
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