The Last Picture Postcard. - Review - book review
Reason, Jan, 2001 by Lynn Scarlett
A guy who likes Holiday Inns and sees some virtue in outlet malls can't be a snob. A lack of pretension is part of what enables well-regarded and prolific novelist Larry McMurtry to travel America's interstate highways with pleasure. McMurtry isn't necessarily crazy about urban sprawl and its lower-density version, urban scatter. And he's no glutton for punishment: Where he can, he steers clear of the "automotive killer bees" of big-city traffic jams. Still, McMurtry enjoys the America that so many highbrows deride: the America of chain stores, Burger Kings, and roadside billboards.
These days, critics of our national landscape and culture often lament the loss of "community," by which they usually mean self-contained small towns or patches of big-city neighborhoods where grandpa sits on the brownstone stoop at dusk. Or they rail against the eruption of rural "starter castles" amid once-working cattle ranches that have been transformed into urban cowboy retreats. Often, critics openly abhor the commonplace and the crass, deploring above all "consumerism."
McMurtry, however, is an iconoclast. It would be going too far to say he celebrates urban sprawl or vanishing cattle ranches or the American thirst for store-bought things. But his travelogue, Roads, gives at least two cheers for contemporary America. A Chicago Tribune reviewer, writing about McMurtry's Pulitzer prizewinning epic Lonesome Dove, said that it had, "both in general and in details, the authority of exact authenticity." So it is with Roads. McMurtry brings us America as it is. And for the most part, he enjoys it.
McMurtry especially likes America's great interstates. He likes Holiday Inns because they are predictable and, above all, comfortable. Others seek authenticity by prowling seldom-used back roads to find quaint, tucked-away hamlets that have a turn-of-the-(last)-century ambiance. Not so McMurtry. He blasts down the nation's interstates at "modestly illegal speeds" and admires their functionality. Their aim, he writes, "is to move you, not educate you." On one jaunt he manages 1,100 miles in a day and a half. Along with thousands of American truckers, he exalts in this accomplishment: "What made it possible to travel that distance... was the great road itself, a highway designed for just that type of travel. I never had to go more than one hundred yards off the highway for food, gasoline, and a rest room.... Des Moines was bypassed so neatly that I didn't have to slow down at all."
When he breezes past outlet malls in the Midwest, he doesn't smirk at these cathedrals of consumerism. Instead, he muses that they have improved many lives--at least the lives of Midwesterners: "For people mired in the depths of what one might call the inner midwest...the arrival of outlet malls is a blessing. They may have to lead pretty dull lives, but at least now they can shop, see what's new at Liz Claiborne, or get their kids nice overalls at Oshkosh B'gosh." Such shopping marvels, he opines, may fall short of Armani, but they're "still better than what was there before."
It's not that McMurtry eschews the more highbrow cultural stuff packed away in museums, financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, or analyzed in the. pages of The New York Review of Books. In fact, his book is part highway travelogue and part literary criticism. As he travels down the interstates, he blends commentary on the latest billboard--those announcing microsurgical vasectomy reversal figure prominently in Roads--with observations about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Longfellow, and dozens of other American writers, past and present.
But McMurtry is ready and willing to find points of interest beyond the nation's museums, national monuments, and literary masterpieces. He delights in the quirkiness of the stuff that draws regular American folk off the highways, such as road signs about the world's largest prairie dog or a five-legged cow. The billboard for the 500-lb., man-eating clam was so irresistible that it actually lured him off the road and out of his car. (His curiosity remained unfulfilled, because the store housing this carnivorous wonder was closed.)
Of course, even a big-city critic might find some redemption in these roadside circus wonders. Kitsch, after all, is always in style. But McMurty also thinks commonplace American pastimes are OK. The riverboat and Indian casinos that have cropped up all over the interior U.S. during the past decade, he says, "provide mid-westerners with a way to be a little wicked without traveling all the way to Vegas." More important, perhaps, they "provide at least a modest amount of glamour in a notably glamourless place."
What is most striking about McMurtry--and what sets him apart from many who cover the same territory--is his ability to see detail and diversity where others profess to see only homogenization. Where the cultural elite alternately fears and sneers at a homogenized America filled with big, look-alike chain stores and lifeless Levittowns, McMurtry is explicit in his rejection of the claim that "it all looks alike." Despite chain stores and repetitive suburbs, he says, America does not all look the same: "It doesn't, and it won't, no matter how many McDonald's and Taco Bells cluster around the exits. There are, after all, McDonald's in both Moscow and Paris, but few would argue that Russia and France look the same."
It is his eye for detail--and his willingness to find authenticity in the ordinary--that enables McMurtry to make such a claim. The lighting, for example, is always different--"the winter light in Sault Ste. Marie, at the head of the 75, will never be like the light over the Everglades, at the bottom of that road. Eastern light is never as strong or as full as western light." His bottom line: "Place itself cannot be homogenized. Place will always be distinct. A thousand McDonald's will not make Boston feel like Tucson."
It's not just his ability to see detail but the pleasure that he takes in everyday American comforts and cultural escapades that separates McMurtry from the culturally fussy. McMurtry's father was a Texas rancher who admired greatness "in things that mattered to him." For McMurtry's dad, this meant bulls. "Sometimes," the son recalls, "because of the magnificence of some of these great animals, [my father] would come to a full stop and just sit looking, arrested by admiration as a stroller in an art museum might be when brought face-to-face with a great picture--a Rembrandt, a Matisse."
For the modern motorist like McMurtry, today's equivalent of a prime specimen bull is a good interstate, whose beauty lies in its extreme functionality and convenience. On his latest round of interstate trips, McMurtry discovered a new wonder: Valet Park, a ubiquitous parking service, in Los Angeles. Hollywooders, he discovered, "may be willing to spend their lives on the freeways or beside the freeways, but one thing they are increasingly reluctant--indeed; unable--to do is park their own cars. In Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood, even laundries have Valet Park. Grocery stores have Valet Park." McMurty is quite taken with Valet Park (as am I). McMurtry, who confesses that he is even "thinking of building a novel around it," sees it "as the newest real advance in California living," another example of Los Angeles "on the cutting edge."
While others rail against the automobile or outlet malls, McMurtry saves his venom for the Border Patrol. From reading Roads, one gets the idea that McMurtry is a guy who likes freedom, hard work, and some degree of chaos--or at least spontaneity. The urge to migrate, he insists, is a natural human inclination. So, too, is the urge to seek a better life. McMurtry, thus, does not care for the Border Patrol: "However mild and courteous the Border Patrolman may turn out to be, the image that registers in the mind, as you drive slowly toward the uniformed policeman with the big dog, is an image from the iconography of Nazism. The association might be unfair, but it's also unavoidable. The struggle of the poor brown people of the south and the more affluent northerners who seek to retard their entry is unrelenting and...corrosive. It poisons the whole border."
For related reasons, McMurtry doesn't care for "spic-and-span" Minneapolis. But he likes St. Paul, Minnesota, which "has all the virtues of the melting pot: easygoing, tolerant, with plenty of watering holes and lots of people watering at them."
This is the America that McMurtry seems to like pretty well. He marvels that sexploitation films from the early '70s could show up at an Amoco truck stop in the middle of nowhere (and he seems highly conversant with their contents). He gets a big uplift from the American creativity embedded in a handmade sign on a wall in Sheyenne, North Dakota. The sign says, simply, "Nothing was ever lost through enduring love of North Dakota." McMurtry is no romantic. He doesn't pretend to love Sheyenne, or North Dakota for that matter. But he does feel gladdened by the sign, because someone felt that way about North Dakota and put it in words on a wall.
Lynn Scarlett (email@example.com) is vice president for research at the Reason Foundation.
Roads: Traveling America's Great Highways, by Larry McMurtry, New York: Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $25
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