Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: Road Scholar

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Road Scholar

Author: Andrei Codrescu

Date: 1993

Publisher: Hyperion

ISBN: 1-56282-878-9

Length: 193 pages

Illustrations: black and white photos by David Graham

Quote: “Roger Weisberg…a TV producer…was wondering if I would beinterested in making a movie about driving through Florida…I told him…we should…go way beyond Florida’s roadside attractions. We should make a movie about America.”

So they did. Road Scholar was the book to go with the movie, in which formerly car-free Codrescu got a driver’s license and drove across the United States with a video crew. Photos are thus an important part of the book, although it contains more pages of text than of pictures.

It’s a very funny book, and also a thoughtful, sometimes sad, sometimes worried book. Weisberg was, after all, attracted to NPR broadcasts by and about a surrealist poet writing in English, which was not his native language, to comic effect. But not the “me no speak English” kind of comedy; for those who don’t remember, the short funny essays (collected in other books, like A Craving for Swan) were teacherly reflections on the quirks of English language and literature, most specifically on the international (and multilingual) surrealist poetry of the twentieth century, with insights from other genres of art and literature around the world. Surrealism implied goofiness, sometimes inspired by high spirits (and/or booze and drugs), sometimes by nightmares, grief, bad trips, and concern about the fate of humankind. Road Scholar is mostly real, but some episodes, like the send-off party with the image of Jayne Mansfield’s head wired to complain of a “splitting headache” before splitting apart, qualify as surreal…and that’s the way in which Road Scholar is funny. It’s humor for educated adults, or at least college students; it’s meant to promote serious thought as well as laughter. You’ll laugh. You’ll feel bemused by people, sorry for people; you’ll wonder what people are doing now.

Highlights of the trip include:

* A consideration of immigration, the U.S. government, and immigrants legal and illegal, in New York City.

* A visit to Allen Ginsberg, and visits to the graves of earlier writers buried in New York state.

* Tours of the Bruderhof and Oneida “intentional communities” in upstate New York. (Oneida is also where Sarah Vowell reported Charles Guiteau being nicknamed “Gitout.”)

* A photo of a wall on which is painted “Say nice things about Detroit.” Codrescu tries; he reminisces about having lived there, briefly, and dedicates a long poem to the city. We also meet eccentric artists and some nice working people in Michigan.

* A brief, vegetarian consideration of Chicago, “Meat Packer to the World” and home of the first McDonald’s restaurant. Another artist, and a Christian roller-skating group.

* A real, explicit conversation with cattle breeders.

* Shooting lessons with a topless female teacher near Las Vegas.

* Pueblo people, ancient caves, Sikhs, hippies, and faith healers in and around Taos and Santa Fe.

* Biosphere 2, an experiment in which people lived in a giant geodesic dome.

* Geriatric bikers and rockers in Sun City, Arizona.

* Gambling and drive-through weddings in Las Vegas.

* An interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. More immigrants; more thoughts on the experience of legal immigration.

If that sounds like a road trip you’d enjoy taking, or hearing the stories about, or seeing the photos from, you’ll enjoy Road Scholar. This web site also gets a lot of correspondence from people who care passionately about some side of some immigration-related issue, and according to Google it attracts a huge amount of readership in countries from which we suspect people may want to emigrate; those readers should also read Road Scholar.

Although some people selling this book on Amazon are already asking for collector prices, I'll stick my neck out and offer it under the usual Fair Trade Books terms: $5 per book, $5 per copy, for a total of $10 out of which we send $1 to Codrescu or a charity of his choice, and although this one is slightly oversized you can probably fit one or two more books into the package.