Most of us have seen or heard comments about books and reading; their ability to transport us away from the here and now to the wherever and whenever. It could be Berlin in the Cold War and you’ve become one of Smiley’s People, or perhaps you remember when Jules Verne took you aboard the Nautilus and you were sweating out how to fight off giant squid. Maybe you even saw yourself as an aspiring literature student off to interview a successful, handsome businessman, but we’ll let that one go.
Every so often we forget some basic truths and need to be guided back to the better path, and I don’t mean morals. I’m talking about writing. This happened to me just recently. Browsing the New Books display on the second floor of Main Library, one of the spine names caught my eye – Philip Caputo. If you haven’t heard of him, and you enjoy reading, then you really should do right by yourself and find some of his works. He successfully writes both fiction and non-fiction, has shared a Pulitzer for Journalism, and is credited with writing what is perhaps the first (and best?) defining book about the Vietnam War. The title that drew me in and was a delight to read is: The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean.
I discovered Caputo when I bought hist first book, A Rumor of War, his Vietnam memoir, right after it was published in 1977. I was either still in high school or just on my way to college, and its currency (remember, the war had ended in 1975) brought some unpleasant truths home to me. Not so much the war, but the warriors, the Vietnam Vets who were my brothers’ ages became very real. It was the first time I remember that history lost some of its abstraction. Philip Caputo writes vividly and in the case of a combat narrative, not gratuitously; every episode and description in Rumor’s pages has a purpose and a function. I became hooked for many years, in the same way others of us patiently wait for the next Sue Grafton, Barbara Kingsolver or James Lee Burke (me.)
The Longest Road lives up to that literary city-on-the-hill of moving the reader. In 2011, the then 70 year old author and his wife take us with them (and their two English Setters) on their 16,000 mile trip from Key West, Florida – the southern most point in the continental US – to Deadhorse, Alaska – the northern most point. Their mode of travel; a 19 foot Airstream and a 2007 Toyota Tundra. Yes, the goal was to see America, maybe in a 2010s derivation of Kerouac or a modified Zen and the Art of Airstream Repair. They pretty much avoided the interstates and deliberately went through populated areas. For much of the trip they followed the route that Lewis & Clark forged, but no visits to Pittsburgh. Caputo’s focus is simpler and more aligned with his background as a newspaperman. Given the extreme political divisiveness of the last 5-10 years, he wanted to find out what holds us together as Americans. Or maybe if we really still hold together.
The book’s Preface sucked me in and I was hooked after that; I couldn’t put it down. When I did, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again.
The idea hatched on Barter Island, A WIND-SCOURED ROCK in the Beaufort Sea that was almost not an island; the channel separating it from the Alaskan mainland looked so narrow a center fielder on one side could have thrown to a second baseman on the other.
. . . Kaktovic had the architectural charm of a New Jersey warehouse district: a dirt airstrip, a hangar, houses like container boxes with doors and windows.
More than just enjoying the book, and thinking about Americaness through the writer’s eyes, is the idea plant. That kernel in the back of my head that’s trying to think about how I’d approach my wife (not to mention the Library) with the idea of finding a camper or an Airstream (NO, they are not the same) and making our own American sojourn.