Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 2

Without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse: knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless.

Today I continue my review of Blue Highways begun on Wednesday.

The above quotation refers to a literal labyrinth, a maze the narrator walks that is too obvious. But clearly its meaning applies to the mad trip of life: the joy and pathos and point is not in knowing but in discovering.

Unavoidably, in the deep South, Heat-Moon finds racial tensions, which he follows to Selma to ask what’s changed since King’s march. He has a totally chilling experience there: this question is not welcome among the whites of the town he encounters, although the Black citizens have a little more to say. He is shaken down in the middle of the night by cops who, he’s warned, didn’t like him talking with Black residents at all. He’s curious about the experiences of Native Americans everywhere he goes, which is unsurprising considering his own heritage; he is also sensitive about his status as a “mixed-blood.” “Let his heart be where it may,” such a person “is a contaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white.” This feeling of not quite belonging inhibits his investigations on the road, which happens but rarely, and usually only out of concern for his immediate safety. The reader feels this “mixed-blood” identity is a pressure point for the narrator, and I’m curious whether he’s explored it in his other works (there are several, but this is all of his I’ve read to date). I accept that this book is not where that material belongs, but it does seem like something he has to write about.

I appreciated his exploration of environmental concerns, although as a topic for this book, the natural world is at least as obvious as racial issues. “Everyone believes what the dredge and bulldozer can do, they can also undo; but a Cajun named Cassie Hebert told me he had yet to see a bush-dog make a mink.” Part of what Heat-Moon is out for is a view of a changing world, to grasp the last of the real, the old, the rural, before it is corporatized and made same – a process much completed between his trip and my own. “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected,” he writes (and as always, the use of ‘men’ pisses me off, but on with it). Places where change did not mean ruin. One of my first thoughts about this book, in its earliest pages, was: I cannot visit the places this man visited. I can go to towns with the same names, which occupy the same spaces, but the diners he judges by the number of past-year calendars on their walls have surely fallen to Subways and Sonics by now.

When Heat-Moon gets into the question of where “the West” begins, I am intrigued. I’m not sure where I’d say, but maybe somewhere west of San Antonio, in my home state of Texas, which is where the question arises for him. “Texans say the Brazos River,” he asserts, and first I want to state that I’ve never heard of an agreed-upon general Texan answer to this question; but I would personally argue hard against the Brazos. Why, that’s east of Austin! His generalizations about Texas fall short for me, because it’s too big a state to generalize (I’d argue that probably even Delaware is too big to generalize, but that’s a different story. Also I’ll be in Delaware soon and let you know). I was tickled to see several of my own homes appear in these pages: for example Johnson City, Texas (“truly a plain town”), where my friend lives who sold me my van. And a little trivia about Fredericksburg, Texas, another town in my old neighborhood: “Main Street’s wide because an ox is stupid,” Heat-Moon is told, although there is a little longer story to it than that. Go buy this book to read it on page 144. Much later in the book – in its final pages – we encounter Elkins and Buckhannon, West Virginia, giving me a thrill, since I’ll be teaching in Buckhannon this fall and taking a rental home maybe as far out as Elkins (not far).

Heat-Moon travels largely spontaneously and by whim. He may study his atlas the night before he drives; he may turn the wheel when he sees a sign that looks interesting. Exceptions to this seat-of-the-pants rule are made for major destinations and to visit friends. This is very much the way I travel, too, and I was frequently pleased and sometimes flabbergasted to find us so much in sync.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of [the author’s father] Heat Moon’s – believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant ‘carefully observant.’ Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitable creeps toward the absurd. Absurd, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning ‘deaf, dulled.’ Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one. STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, the old railroad crossing signs warned. Whitman calls it ‘the profound lesson of reception.’

New ways of seeing can disclose new things: the radio telescope revealed quasars and pulsars, and the scanning electronic microscope showed the whiskers of the dust mite. But turn the question around: Do new things make for new ways of seeing?

Coming early, on page 17, this felt like a lot to consider at the time I read it – so new to Heat-Moon – and it still feels like a lot to consider now. But it also feels like the essential question. Later,

She longed for the true journey of an Odysseus or Ishmael or Gulliver or even a Dorothy of Kansas, wherein passage through space and time becomes only a metaphor of a movement through the interior of being. A true journey, no matter how long the travel takes, has no end. What’s more, as John Le Carré, in speaking of the journey of death, said, ‘Nothing ever bridged the gulf between the man who went and the man who stayed behind.’

Maybe this is Heat-Moon’s subtle point, but I want to ask the question outright: doesn’t the Le Carré line apply equally well to more worldly journeys? Forgive the self-reference here (so sorry), but I wrote early in my creative thesis about moving into the van: “I hope to return home from these travels as someone else. But is that not also the scariest thing imaginable: to jump into a crucible hoping to be transformed, not knowing what will spill out the other side? How on earth does one pack for such a trip?” How are we changed by the things we do and the places we go?

This book is a source of many one-line philosophies, koans even, that a traveler could spend her time on. Part of me thinks I should put them on note-cards and consider one every morning as I set out.

There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.

A Brooklyn-police-officer-turned-monk says (among many other wise things),

I learned to travel, then traveled to learn.

Heat-Moon again:

A rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find.

On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension – change is.

Let me tell you, never in life have I lost track of time like I have out here.

In a hotel room at the geographical center of North America, a neon sign blinking red through the cold curtains, I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind.

This line, coming a little past the center of this book, is immediately and obviously sad, and poetic. And I so sympathize: I too have sat sad and poetic in a rundown hotel room. But look more closely. Like a small idea in a vacant mind? Well, the idea is small: maybe this is a bad sign, the smallness of the idea. But maybe it’s hopeful: in a vacant mind sprouts something small. A beginning. I don’t know. I’m still deciding.

Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: severe irritability.

I do so sympathize. And yet, only a few lines later:

I built a little fire, cut some sausage, and put it in the skillet with two eggs. The pine popped and snapped in the flames, the sausage hissed like serpents, the warm air moved, and I was washed. Nights like last night made for mornings like this. I could stay on the road forever.

This too I’ve experienced. Move a few miles down the road and find new life.

On this topic, though, I confess I’ve felt some of the same malaise, aimlessness, and sadness that Heat-Moon has; in fact, it sometimes feels like he conjures his experiences again in me. When a full day’s rainstorm keeps him holed up in Ghost Dancing reading his atlas, the same rainstorm kept me holed up in Foxy, reading Blue Highways. When his mood turns dark, mine does as well. I’m not sure I should blame him – coincidence, causation, correlation? Certainly, if he has cause to feel morose at the America he finds, I can only have more cause. At any rate, it makes me feel his words ring truer.

I gained so much from this book. For one thing, I added a number of places from Heat-Moon’s travels to my own map of maybes: Crater Lake in Oregon, Selma (how could I have passed this by?) in Alabama, Manteo and Wanchese in North Carolina. And I hope to be goaded to my own increased writing by his prodigious output. A mere three months gave Heat-Moon this book of 420 pages, which began as an 800-page manuscript. My five months have given me mere notes and jottings (and copious blog entries, of course, as McKibben warns against).

But its value is vast, and not just for fellow van-dwellers. Blue Highways teaches about America, a place in time, or a series of small places in relationship to time. It teaches how to live in the world, how to relate to strangers. It’s an extraordinary series of sentences, gorgeously and wisely and hilariously written. It’s an absolute classic.

Matt, thanks again.


Rating: 7 for objective value and 9 for its commentary on my life right this minute, so call it 8 spontaneous redirections.

And come back next week for my examination of Blue Highways marginalia!

Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 1

I am eternally grateful to Matt Ferrence for sending me this book at the right time (and then I goofed and waited three months to read it, but that’s on me). Matt is the author of Appalachia North, which I am also carrying around in the van and not getting around to as early as I’d like (I swear I’m just saving it for a special occasion). And he is a very fine teacher – check out this awesome talk on Big Hair Drum Fills, one of the highlights of last winter’s residency at my school.

First, the personal significance of this book cannot be overstated. Matt sent it to me near the start of my own van travels cross-country; Blue Highways is Heat-Moon’s travelogue of the same sort of journey. It will be hard to separate my experience of this book from my similar life experience. I will try, but it will be hard. I have so much to say about this book that I’m breaking this review into two posts, starting with general comments and moving into selections and closer looks.

A brief foreword by Bill McKibben was most remarkable to me because of McKibben’s significance to me and (more so) to my father, who points out that this book was “published and lingering on the NYT bestseller list in the year of your birth; and the author was the age you will be when you hit the road again a year from now.” He didn’t catch the foreword, though. That’s okay: there’s not much to it. It amounts to McKibben’s praise of this classic, and some cursory observations about how the world has changed since 1978 when Heat-Moon took to the road. Books have been written about the changing world; I think it’s to McKibben’s credit that he doesn’t try to write that book in the preface to this one. He gets out of the way quickly, which I appreciate.

So, in we go. At his opening, William Least Heat-Moon is in some crisis. He learns he’s lost his job teaching English; he calls to check in with his wife, from whom he’s been separated nine months, and she lets another man’s name slip. And he finally breaks, and takes off in a way (he later realizes) he’s always been tempted to do. He moves into a truck he calls Ghost Dancing, outfitted with bunk and other gear, and heads out. (This already holds many parallels to my own life.)

Heat-Moon travels the nation in a great loop, some 11,000 miles of it, and in a mere three months. (I have decided that he’s a little cagey about his timeline, although it’s there if you read closely. I’ve been out nearly twice as long now as he was, but I’ve traveled only 9,000 miles or so. And written very little.) His goals for his trip are vague, and he’s generally a little put out when asked to articulate them (something he’s asked to do rather more often than I am, possibly because dogs [see below re: dogs]). These goals get a little clearer – or a little clearer in their muddiness – as his trip progresses. This makes perfect sense to me. He had to take the trip to figure out why he had to take it.

the Blue Highways route (click to enlarge)

Along the way, he talks to people and sees the sights. He seeks out small towns with interesting place names: Nameless, Tennessee; Whynot, Mississippi; Dime Box, Texas. He wants to eat good Cajun food, and authentic diner food anywhere; he wants to hear what people think, of their place and of the changing world. He sets out to record (literally, he carries a microcassette recorder, and a camera and backup lenses), and conducts what I think I’ll call interviews, although he clearly wouldn’t call them that – not to his interviewees, who think they’re just having conversation. Heat-Moon picks up hitchhikers, of course, including a proselytizing Bible-thumper, and they match quotations: Whitman versus the Bible. It is an invigorating episode, actually, although I would not have had quite the patience Heat-Moon shows. (Maybe this is why I travel with a dog!) As McKibben advises, “If at any point these passages look like blog posts from someone’s summer trip, read them again more carefully. Savor them. Because this is about as good as writing ever got.” (I love the implication that writing is not still getting, but has got.) Well, the passages in question are blog-like: they read like journal entries, and they are chronological. But McKibben’s point is well taken. These are not mere journal entries. They add up to a greater sum. (I’m already giving the lie to what I said about the insignificance of McKibben’s foreword, aren’t I. Well, so be it.)

When a waitress in Gainesboro, Tennessee insists, “Cain’t travel without a dog!” Heat-Moon replies: “I like to do things the hard way.” If you’ve been following that other blog, you know my instant reaction to this. He continues: “It isn’t traveling to cross the country and talk to your pug instead of people along the way. Besides, being alone on the road makes you ready to meet someone when you stop. You get sociable traveling alone.” And you know, that’s true. I keep to myself quite a bit; because I’m not really by myself at all.

Hops in a van on a boat

Among the enjoyable features of Heat-Moon’s writing: he writes a hell of a phrase, often causing me to guffaw aloud in public. Indiana 66 is “a road so crooked it could run for the legislature”; Sulphur Spring, which the Shawnees believed was curative, tastes “bad enough to cure something.” “Golden Styroform from Big Mac containers blew about as if Zeus had just raped Danae. Shoot the Hamburglar on sight.” “Muddy holes a small man on a small unicycle would have disappeared in…” “Note to mapmakers: without a gas station, cafe, water tower, and stoplight, you don’t have a town.” And a coinage: he spots something with a toothy grin looming in front of his truck “just before I smunched it.” I like a good, onomatopoetic coinage. Note that, aside from the indictment of McDonald’s, these phrases are pleasing in themselves, purely for their words, and not for their greater meaning.

I love his descriptions of the strange and the wonderful in the everyday – McKibben praises this too, although he chooses different passages to highlight – me, I’m partial to the one with the bicycle in it. Driving up a steep rise in Arizona,

I shifted to low, and Ghost Dancing pulled hard. A man with a dusty, leathery face creased like an old boot strained on a bicycle – the old style with fat tires. I called a hello, he said nothing. At the summit, I waited to see whether he would make the ascent. Far below lay two cars, crumpled wads. Through the clear air I could count nine ranges of mountains, each successively grayer in a way reminiscent of old Chinese woodblock prints. The Mogollon was a spectacular place; the more so because I had not been anesthetized to it by endless Kodachromes. When the cyclist passed, I called out, “Bravo!” but he acknowledged nothing. I would have liked to talk to a man who, while his contemporaries were consolidating their little empires, rides up the Mogollon Rim on a child’s toy. Surely he knew something about desperate men.

I will forgive the dig about the child’s toy (especially since I didn’t see the bicycle in question), and recognize that the final sentence I quote here hints at a mostly unstated theme of Blue Highways. At least not until late in the book does Heat-Moon begin to address the pain of his failing marriage, and the fact that he is, on some level, running from something (its failure) or seeking something (its salvation). The desperate man who may have something to teach our narrator is one of the subtle through-lines of the book, and this moment with the leather-faced cyclist points it out. It is not til page 327 that he puts it plainly: “Some men take their broken marriages to church-basement workshops. I took mine to the highways and attempted to tuck it away for nearly eleven thousand miles.” I think it a charming touch of realism, that the reader must wait for thousands of miles, along with the narrator, to learn what the hell is really going on here.

As McKibben points out, Heat-Moon “is fluent (unobnoxiously) in the literature of our language).” Our narrator quotes Whitman and Black Elk (from Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks) most frequently, I think, as well as Heat Moon (the author’s father), and (naturally) Thoreau; I also appreciated reference to Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (which I read before this blog was born, and I regret that, because I’d love to compare the two. I remember it fondly). Likewise John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. Here’s Gertrude Stein, too: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes American what it is.” Now, I have visited Big Bend and I hear tell of the wide open spaces of Montana and Alaska, but I wonder if this statement is still true at all. The quotation is credited (not here, but I found it) to Stein’s 1936 The Geographical History of America, more than 80 years ago now. I can believe it was true then. When I read this line, I stopped and put down the book to sit with it and ask myself: is this what I want? Space where nobody is? It’s part of an ongoing and important series of questions I’m asking myself these days. This is not necessarily material for this book review; but it’s significant, I think, that a book makes one stop and question.

I love an author who will teach me new words, too. Heat-Moon had me look up quodlibet, which is either “a topic for or exercise in philosophical or theological discussion,” or “a lighthearted medley of well-known tunes.” The usage here is “a mockingbird knocked out a manic of quodlibets,” so I guess we’ll go for the latter definition. He had me look up mochila, which turns out to be (prosaically) Spanish for ‘backpack.’ He teaches me conterminous, which means ‘sharing a common boundary,’ as in the conterminous or contiguous United States. Tallywhacker: slang for penis. Arrack: distilled spirit made from coconut flowers or sugarcane. Swiving: having sexual intercourse. Cockahoop: as a verb, to carouse, basically, but used here as an adjective it means something more like ‘extremely and obviously pleased.’ Whilom: former or erstwhile.

On the other hand, Heat-Moon can be a little creepy in his appreciation of the bodies of young coeds, and in his sympathies with other grown men and their appreciations. I know this is a sign of the times (as Pops pointed out, the year of my birth, this book was published – that’s four years after Heat-Moon took his trip). It’s something I’ve noted with Abbey, not to mention Hemingway – two of my all-time favorites. But still, ugh.

On the other other hand, Heat-Moon impresses with his openness to consider any- and everything put in his path, and he deserves credit for his sensitivity to issues of social justice, racism, and environmental concerns. That’s where we’ll start up again on Friday with more on Blue Highways. Now go order your copy.

The Gentle Art of Tramping by Graham Stephen Graham

From day to day you keep your log, your day-book of the soul, and you may think at first that it is a mere record of travel and of facts; but something else will be entering into it, poetry, the new poetry of your life, and it will be evident to a seeing eye that you are gradually becoming an artist in life, you are learning the gentle art of tramping, and it is giving you an artist’s joy in creation.

I wish I could remember where I heard of this book; it’s been some time, and I know I did some searching before finding my copy, from Budge Press. I’ve had it for years. I did find a hint, late in the book: a references to Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart. Perhaps the recommendations for each were linked? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it during my own travels, though I am no tramp because I have a van and do not go on foot. (I suspect Graham would be disgusted.)

I opened this book quite blind, and not having heard of Graham Stephen Graham, although he turns out to be quite prolific (read here) with some 34 books to his name, whew! All that biographical data is not within these pages, though. All you learn from The Gentle Art of Tramping is that Graham is a passionate tramp, or walker-wanderer. (“One includes in the category ‘tramp’ all true Bohemians, pilgrims, explorers afoot, walking tourists, and the like.”) He loves sleeping outdoors, eating and living simply; he finds this lifestyle to be a high art form, and he is well-read and often eloquent, but would be unhappy within the walls of classroom or library.

This book offers an engaging mix of practical advice (how to choose a bed for the night) and poetic or passionate holding forth (the joy of, as Graham writes, sleeping à la belle étoile). There is no question how strongly this narrator believes what he writes; he positively exults in drying off by a fire after getting thoroughly soaked. (He is surprisingly exultant in the soaking, too.) He gives medical advice, though questionable: “a waterproof worn over wet clothes is a sure way to cultivate rheumatism. The damp cannot escape outwards – and so goes inward to your very bones.”

He waxes especially elegant about fire-building.

The fire in the rain is a triumph; the night fire in darkness under the stars is the happiest, but it disputes happiness with the dawn fire.

I love to see the blue smokes crawling upward in the dawn, while, with bare legs, one struts about doing the domestic work of morning out of doors. It is part of the very poetry of the tramping life. You give a proper affirmative then to Browning’s

Morning’s at seven
All’s right with the world.

Graham is much concerned with reading and writing while one tramps. He writes that “it is in description that the keeper of a diary becomes artist,” and he does some lovely describing, as in a chapter on what he calls the “zigzag walk,” where you take the first turn the the left and then the next first turn to the right, alternating, and exploring a city in this way. (Cities get their own special treatment, although Graham, of course, favors the countryside and the wilderness.) I love more his pith and cleverness, though. His explanations of how to make coffee and what to eat are interesting side notes, but it’s his life philosophy and turns of phrase that capture me best. Here, a series of quotations to illustrate.

The best companions are those who make you freest. They teach you the art of life by their readiness to accommodate themselves. After freedom, I enjoy in a companion a well-stocked mind, or observant eyes, or wood-lore of any kind. It is nice sometimes to tramp with a living book.

All books are worthwhile; perhaps especially the living ones?

If manners could be improved we should more easily get into sympathy with ‘foreigners’; if they could be perfected there would not be any foreigners.

Lovely. Although Graham does indulge in stereotypes, none were especially negative; I found these easily forgiven (this book originally published in 1926), especially with this line to wrap them up. He is remarkably well traveled, and has thoughts to offer on many countries on several continents; sometimes (unavoidably) this information is overly simplistic, but it’s interesting to see his perspective. He is especially well-versed in Russia, where he claims to have tramped several thousand miles.

Atlases are not so good. You have to take them down from a shelf and consult them. Wall maps spare you the trouble; they consult you.

Who doesn’t love a map that is consulting you when you’re not looking?

And, in answer to that other book that I guess I’m still irritated about, Graham on class:

Class is the most disgusting institution of civilisation, because it puts barriers between man and man.

Leaving aside the ‘man’ usage (again, dated), another fine philosophy.

I found this book a slow read, but I’m not sure why; perhaps a low point in the cycles of my own attention span. Graham certainly rambles on the page as on the land. And some of his how-to advice is either obsolete, or personally irrelevant; and I am not at all convinced of the joys to be had in getting totally soaked in a deluge, while hiking or while sleeping, thank you very much. But clearly there is much to be loved, and consulted at length, in these pages. I do recommend.

I will end as Graham ends, with his final, ecstatic paragraph.

I am still on that zigzag way, pursuing the diagonal between the reason and the heart; the chart could be made by drawing lines from star to star in the night sky, not forgetting many dim, shy, fitfully glimmering out-of-the-way stars, which one would not purpose visiting. I said we would not enter a maze, but we have made one and and are in one, a maze of Andalusia and Dalmatia, of Anahuac and Anatolia, of Seven Rivers Land and Seven Kings. The first to the left, the next to the right! No blind alleys. A long way. Beaucoup zigzag, eh!


Rating: 7 coffeepots.

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

Well, huh. This one didn’t age well. I thought a book about a much-loved dog, which has come to me so highly recommended, would be an obvious pleasure. I felt my first misgivings when reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s praise-packed introduction, in which she “derives much satisfaction” from a certain dog-shit-versus-cyclist episode.

The book is a cataloging of the life of Tulip, a not particularly well-behaved German shepherd. And it’s true that Ackerley has a knack for description and an ability to make me laugh at some of his characterizations and turns of phrase. But I ended up resenting his small victories of this sort, because in between he kept pissing me off. For one thing, his repeated statements about class were very off-putting. Now, I can allow the strong correlation between class and education in 1940s England, but that doesn’t mean he had to be so hateful about it. He makes some nasty comments about women-in-general, too, but my favorite is when he manages to combine the two: “Women are dangerous, especially women of the working class. It is always a mistake to ruffle them.”

I found this narrator to be highly unlikeable. He thinks his dog should shit where it pleases, including in the doorway of the local green-grocer’s shop (this precipitates his comment about working-class women), and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He thinks his dog Tulip should get to do absolutely anything she wants, and you’re an asshole if you think otherwise. He wants to have it both ways: his dog is a creature of nature and should be allowed to behave “naturally” wherever she wants (free-bleeding on a city bus, pooping in the grocery), but she’s also a much-loved pet who sleeps in his bed with him. I think you have to pick one, myself. I guess this makes me what Thomas calls a “dog fascist”…

And then there’s Tulip’s sex life. I was surprised (especially after Thomas’s introduction sums up the book very differently) to find that fully two-thirds of the book are occupied with this topic. Tulip is ‘unaltered’ – not fixed – and so she goes into heat twice a year. Ackerley is much worked up about this: he pities her unfulfilled needs, he wants her needs fulfilled (wants her to have sex and be a mommy), has trouble having her needs fulfilled, doesn’t want her needs fulfilled, cries and wails… he admires her beautiful swollen vulva and its pretty pink. It all got to feel very Freudian and weird to me, by page 100 or so of this. Also, the snobbery about breed: he wants her litter to be “pure,” wants her bred with nothing less beautiful than herself, and goes on about the evils of ‘mongrels.’ Again, I know that this was rather typical of Ackerley’s time (and class), but it reads poorly now. Of course, Tulip prefers a mutt (because she understands inbreeding much better than her upper-class human). Oh! and he intends to drown all of her female pups (females being undesirable, don’t you know), but finds himself regrettably unable to do this “reasonable thing.” Woe is him. Anybody still like this guy? No.

There were a few moments of humor here, but I spent most of my time angry. The best thing about this book was perhaps that it was short.


Rating: 3 dead puppies on your head, mister.

My Years with Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius, and Rage by Harold F. Eggers Jr. with L. E. McCullough

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by its publicist in exchange for my honest review.


Over four months ago, a publicist wrote to me offering a copy of this memoir about Townes Van Zandt. Only in the last week or so when I finally got around to opening it did I realize the honor I’d received. I’m really grateful I got to read this one; and I’m honored that I was asked. Thanks, Jennifer.

Townes Van Zandt was a tortured genius and one of the finest troubadours this country has known. Harold F. Eggers Jr. was Townes’s road manager, business partner, and much more, for some twenty years. His memoir here (cowritten with L. E. McCullough, who has the writing experience) is very much about telling Townes’s story, but Eggers’s own life is well-represented, as well. I respect the format very much. The remarkable life of Townes Van Zandt clearly inspired the writing, and that’s the name that draws readers to the book. But Eggers has lived, as well, and I’m glad he’s present.

The book opens with the early years Eggers and Townes spent together, and then flashes back to a very brief telling of Eggers’s childhood and his service in Vietnam before he went to work for Townes (thanks to his big brother Kevin Eggers, who had previously worked with Townes and set up his veteran younger brother with a job to help him out). His tour in Vietnam plays a role in the rest of the story; Eggers credits the things he saw there with his ability to adapt to this wildness of sharing a hotel room with Townes, and believes his thrill-seeking and attraction to danger was about chasing something he’d seen in war. As a parallel, Townes had tried to enlist in the armed forces but been turned away because of the electroshock therapy he’d received as a teenager (also an enormous event in Townes’s life which would follow him forever). As Eggers tells it, Townes’s disappointment cast a long shadow.

There is everything here that a Townes fan wants: insider information, jokes and stories, and that enormous and overarching sadness that we feel in his songs. (Well, almost everything. We still don’t know much about Townes’s early life, pre-shock therapy, because he didn’t remember it, himself. This is a painful hole in the record, in my opinion. But Eggers couldn’t resolve it, and he’s right not to try. I sure wish someone had approached Townes’s parents while they were alive…) It’s a thorough telling of Townes’s final twenty years or so, as seen by Eggers, who does not claim to know what he wasn’t there to see; but the two men spent a lot of time together when on tour, often living as roommates even off the road. Eggers quotes Guy Clark: “Harold, how can you stay in the same room with Townes Van Zandt? You have been doign this for years, man. I’m his friend, too, but it would wear me out. How do you put up with it?” After years of reflection, Eggers is ready to say that growing up in a large family and later his military service gave him “the ability to routinize almost any sort of irrational behavior.” Eggers has his tricks: when Townes pitches fits in public and is on the brink of getting them arrested, Eggers tells him he needs to get onstage right now; this always works. He sees Townes sabotage recording sessions and huge live shows, and wishes the musicians in the studio only knew how to manage Townes the way he does.

As told here, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Eggers babysits and manages Townes, enabling the career he was able to have, however wracked and traumatized. But Townes helps Eggers mange his own demons, too. There’s a huge amount of love here. At the beginning and the end and in between, Eggers relates that Townes wanted this book to exist, and wanted to be sure it told the whole story, and not just the pretty stuff. “Tell the truth, no matter what… do not whitewash anything. Let all the ghosts and demons have their say.” Although Eggers’s love for Townes rings loud, I think he’s honored his friend’s wish, too.

This is one of the ways I want to contrast this book with another. Without Getting Killed or Caught, a recent biography of Guy Clark, was a rich source of information about Guy, one of Townes’s best friends. But it was too saccharine in its praise, didn’t let all the ghosts and demons have their say. Eggers did, and I appreciate him for that.

The style of My Years with Townes Van Zandt is straightforward, the writing style of a man with a story to tell, rather than that of a writer of craft and artistry. No complaints; Eggers’s voice comes through clearly, and I can feel his personality, and I hung on every word. But it’s a straight relating, and not a crafted piece of creative nonfiction. I’m a little surprised, since there was a ghostwriter involved, that it didn’t get a little more polish. But I’m not sorry.

One final detail before I tell you what an important read this is. Several appendices offer a thorough discography (and then some) and Eggers’s recording philosophy, for recording live shows (which have yielded such discography). The student of Townes’s music will be well-served: I know some of what I’m shopping for next.

For the Townes fan? An absolutely essential volume to keep and study. For the reader not so sure about Townes? An important look into the music industry of the 1970s-90s, at counterculture and American roots music, and at an artist you will soon become a fan of. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: for the sake of 8 songs.

writers in video (audio)

A few links for you today that came from my parents.

My mother sent this recording of a Bellingham local Whatcom Reads program, in which Timothy Egan discusses his book The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (and, in Q&A, a few more – remember Mom reviewed The Worst Hard Time for us). I really enjoyed listening to this one (thanks Mom for the tip that the visual part was not entirely necessary), and I am reminded that I need to try some Egan one day – he sounds in the vein of Jon Krakauer and Erik Larson, who were among the first writers I recognized as creative nonfiction and as something I loved. While I really enjoyed it, I also took exception a few times to some of Egan’s comments: his chauvinism about geography, for example, and his statement that “Indians all have creation narratives,” as if to imply that his/our own culture doesn’t have creation narratives. (I guess it’s only a creation narrative if somebody else believes it, and what *I* believe is just truth?) (Also, any time you say “all the [ethnic group] do such-and-such” you’re probably on thin ice.) These quibbles were not fatal for my appreciation, and if anything indicate that I was engaging. One of these days I will read some Egan…

And, my father sent this episode of Oregon State University’s About Words, featuring Ben Goldfarb about his book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Pops appreciates beavers; we have a mutual friend (and friend to Goldfarb, apparently) named Rob Rich who is a beaver fan and advocate, and writer; and I have been seeing a lot of beavers these last few weeks on my travels. But this short video (very short, after an hour-plus with Tim Egan) is less about the beavers and more about the imperative to write, among other things.

So, a little extra to add to your listening cue! [That’s a tip: although YouTube videos, I did not watch but only listened to both clips, which was fine (visuals were just background). I signed up for a free 30-day trial of YouTube Premium, which allowed me to download these videos for offline viewing/listening.]

Thanks, Mom and Pops!

On Being 40(ish) ed. by Lindsey Mead

These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.

In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old–give or take–means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, “These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history.”

The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother’s 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which “happens no matter what you’re doing with it.” The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: “by forty, we know who we are,” Jill Kargman writes. “When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age–our very best parts distilled and clarified.”

Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: “I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.” And that’s a happy ending.

On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life–its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 rainbow suspenders.
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