1) The closest I’ve ever come to reading On The Road was the first time I ever heard of it, back in 1992. I was lounging on my bed perusing a copy of Deadline in which Tank Girl was reading this book I'd never heard of by a mysterious person called Kerouac. I figured this must be one of those Cool Books that I really ought to read, just so I could say that I had, so I added it onto my mental TBR list. Yeah, that was 19 years ago. Still not read the thing. This was around the same time I found out there was a Jesus & Mary Chain song entirely composed of lines from The Naked Lunch, and decided I must get hold of this book at once. Still not read that, either. Maybe it’s time I picked up a copy of both…
2) I’d never heard of Colby Buzzell until a couple of weeks ago, but Lost in America appealed to me HUGELY when I read the book’s description. I requested a copy via NetGalley and was very happy to have that request approved. That’s how I came to have a copy of this book in my hands in all its electronic glory.
Disclosures out of the way - let the review commence!
Colby Buzzell, an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who’s had a memoir published and written a lot for assorted magazines and the like, was commissioned to take a road trip across the US and write, quote-unquote, a “love letter to Kerouac”. These plans were rather hampered by real life in the form of his mother’s terminal illness and the impending birth of his son. The book opens with a series of false starts as Buzzell, conflicted, uncertain and most likely in denial as to the true state of his mother’s health, postpones the planned start of his trip, with the result that he then ends up setting off right after his son is born. All this gives us some context as to why (in addition to the PTSD) our author may be a little all over the place. How’s the guy supposed to concentrate on writing a North American travelogue while he’s weeks into new fatherhood and trying to mourn his mother at the same time? A few reviewers have laid into Buzzell for this, but I’ll refrain from doing so. It’s irrelevant, it’s none of my damned business, and besides, I have no idea how much he may have been depending on his book advance to support his new family. The guy is also extremely upfront about it, so, really, move along, there’s no “Runaway Road Trip Douche-Dad” scandal here. Were he still in the military there’s every chance he’d have been deployed thousands of miles away before/during/after the birth of his son and received all kinds of support, so a little less judgment would be nice here.
OK, where was I? Ah yes. Once he finally gets going, Buzzell pretty much stumbles across the North American continent, drifting from town to town in search of... something. It’s as if there is some kind of plot here, some kind of narrative, but Buzzell has no idea what or where it might be and just doesn’t have it in him at this point to find the thread. So what we get is him driving until he’s sick of driving and low on gas, then pulling up in some random and often unnamed town. At this point he’ll check into the nearest hotel that meets the criteria of being a) cheap and b) not part of a cookie-cutter chain, then, for want of anything better to do, heading straight to the first dive bar he can find and getting drunk. Very drunk. He’ll spend a while in some of the places he stops off at, doing a bit of day labor here and there and drinking during his off-duty (and even on-duty) hours, finally realizing there’s nothing for him there, at which point he’ll hit the road in search of more of the same.
All this paints a very bleak picture of the places Buzzell travels through, but you know what? I wouldn’t mind betting it’s a truthful one. People are broke. There’s not much work. What work there is is badly-paid. There’s precious little optimism to go around, and life pretty much sucks. Sure, there are other, more heartwarming and poignant stories to be told, but at this point, Buzzell is not the guy to be telling them. You can tell the author is pretty damned depressed and feeling utterly directionless, it comes across with painful clarity in his writing. He’s genuinely lost in America, and the America he's travelling through feels pretty lost too. He doesn’t know where to go and it seems like there really is nowhere to go. He doesn’t seek out the ‘good’ places to present to the reader, instead he gravitates naturally towards the hopeless and the lost and the misfits. I get the impression that the first half of the book is about Buzzell despairing as to how he’s ever going to write a book, and what it’s going to be about.
At which point our decrepit hero rolls up in Detroit, and everything somehow falls into place. From what I can make out, he falls in love with the city almost at first sight. He checks into a non-chain hotel, just like he does everywhere else, but this place is special. Buzzell describes the hotel and its owners in such a way that I almost want to go and find it, and move in. It’s run by an old couple who seem to regard each and every one of their guests as part of their extended family, treating them with the kind of solicitousness you’d expect them to reserve for wayward grandchildren rather than paying boarders. Once set up in the hotel, Buzzell sets out to explore as much of Detroit as he possibly can, gravitating as though compelled by some perverse deathwish straight towards all the neighborhoods that his worried hosts beg him to steer clear of. He also whips out his camera and for the first time during his trip, feels inclined to really document what’s around him.
I would like to read more from this author. I like the glimpses we get into his head, the observations he throws out there, his sense of humor and his sardonic way of looking at things. The second half of Lost in America makes the whole thing worthwhile. I’ve never been to Detroit and must confess to knowing next to nothing about the place, but came away from reading this book wanting to take a trip up there and find out what it’s really like. I found myself staying up late into the night reading about the locations Buzzell had visited and looking at endless photos of the city, both in its heyday and now in its state of extreme decline. Finally, I found Buzzell’s flickr photostream, and given that it’s a public one, I hope it won’t be too much of an intrusion to share it here. It will explain far more about this book than I ever could. Colby Buzzell, you ought to consider addressing your next love letter to Detroit. I think it would be beautiful.
Lost in America: A Dead End Journey is available now in hardback and e-book formats, from the kind of places you'd expect to find hardback and electronic books.