ROADRUNNER by Dilip D’Souza. HarperCollins, 2009. 313 pages.
Inspired by Roadrunner, I drove with my daughter Anu and son Siddhartha to help Anu move from Chicago to the Bay Area this summer. While the memories of that journey will be shared in a future travel essay, it’s illuminating to consider that our family’s goal-oriented road trip lasted four days and covered some 2,400 miles. D’Souza’s more serendipitous travels, across 7,000 miles of American highways and back roads, took place over 18 months. Roadrunner, reflecting the leisurely pace of those eighteen months, serves as a genial companion for a reader who is not in a hurry for a book to go somewhere.
D’Souza is a marvelous conversationalist; indeed, it feels as if the reader is riding shotgun as the author takes the high road (and sometimes the low one) in his exploration of America and Americana. The result is a series of loosely connected essays, only one longer than 15 pages. Because of the relatively quick, easy reads of a few pages at a time, one doesn’t feel road fatigue. Instead, one experiences the eager traveler’s enthusiasm and unflagging energy.
Also, in a much-welcomed reversing of the gaze, those readers based in the United States will experience an Indian insight into the American experience; more often than not, literary travel writers from the West go to far-flung places in Asia, Africa, and South America. In that sense, D’Souza does not climb the shoulders of travel writers such as V. S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, and Bruce Chatwin; instead, he recalls a unique blend of Alexis de Tocqueville and William Least Heat-Moon. Like de Tocqueville’s 19th-century Journey to America and Least Heat-Moon’s 20th-century Blue Highways: A Journey into America, Roadrunner considers what it means to be American from both political and sociological perspectives. In part because D’Souza can be considered a junior contemporary of Least Heat-Moon, but mostly because Least Heat-Moon also traveled the less traveled roads of America’s hinterland, it is perhaps meaningful to compare and contrast Roadrunner and Blue Highways.
Both books are written by Indians of a sort, D’Souza, a native of India who has spent considerable time in the United States, and Least Heat-Moon, a Native American whose given name (William Lewis Trogdon) suggests considerable assimilation into the Euro-American culture. These authors take to secondary roads, avoiding interstate highways and, as a result, focus their attention on small towns (e.g. Least Heat-Moon’s Nameless, Tennessee and D’Souza’s Marfa, Texas) and small places with big impact (both visited Selma, Alabama). And while both explore a bit of America’s racial tension, their books shine the further they move away from the headlines, dining at out-of-the-way cafes rather than fast food chains, and meeting ordinary Americans rather than the rich and famous.
Nearly three decades separate these two books. Although Blue Highways sat atop the New York Times best-seller’s list for the good part of 1983 and Roadrunner is not yet published in the United States, both merit the attention of anyone trying to understand how much America has remained true to its generous heart(land) and how much it has changed. To be sure, D’Souza’s less contemplative work falls short of the classic status of Least Heat-Moon’s soul-searching writing, but to be mentioned in the same sentence is not a stretch.
Roadrunner begins ambitiously with a chapter titled “Walking America.” By the end of the book, one feels that had D’Souza done a bit more focused walking, he may have had the kind of tight narrative that brings this opening chapter to life. In these pages, the author teases the reader with a magnificently rendered exposition of race in America during the time of Obama. So much is compressed in six spare pages: the blues guru, Robert Johnson; Martin Luther King, Junior, as recalled through a faded Time-Life “I Have a Dream” supplement possessed by the author’s mother; the murder of Emmett Till, a young black teen whose alleged “crime” was to whistle at a white woman; and Bill Clinton, the first “black” president. But because the author’s travels across America took place during the presidential campaign of 2008, it is Barack Obama who takes center place in this opening chapter. One begins to think that this will be a book about the rifts in this country that Obama promised to bridge: rifts between conservative and liberal, red and blue, black and white, old and young, rich and poor, immigrants and, well, earlier immigrants. And because of D’Souza’s entertaining and friendly voice, one is certain that this will not be a lecture. Instead the first chapter makes you want to take your own journey across the country, ideally with D’Souza along for company.
But a bit like Barack Obama’s presidency, Dilip D’Souza attempts too much and loses his way. He drops the narrative on race (only to resume the slender thread of it in the final pages) and meanders from one accidental place to another. Sometimes he makes pithy observations about how similar India and the United States are to each other, but often these are tangential and feel forced. A couple of very short chapters (“Smoke and Cannons” and “Fifth Wife”) leave the reader muttering, “What was that about?”
Perhaps this book was written for those individuals in the blog and Twitter generation who have short attention spans and little need for glue between tweets. But just as one’s interest flags, there appear chapters that are brilliant: “Prejudice” is a lovely and hopeful essay on how the United States has evolved and how each of us can grow; “Marfa” suggests the serendipity of travel, hinting at the lost opportunity of America in considering how the country has changed; and “Immigrant” returns to the question of race by introducing Americans who have roots in Iceland and those with ancestors from Mexico, all the while asking, “Were the celebrated founding fathers of this vast nation just… ‘illegal immigrants?’”
There are so many pictures of different qualities presented in Roadrunner, that one wishes that this were three separate books: (1) a windows-down breezy trip through the silly sweetness that is Dilip’s America; (2) a rigorous journey with the brisk air-conditioning waking up the reader to the reality of Barack’s America; and (3) a cross-current exploration of our interdependent India and America. In Blue Highways, when William Least Heat-Moon engaged a man in Selma about race relations, the man said, ‘’You got a picture in your brain all made up like a bed.’’ I imagine that if Dilip D’Souza had met that same man, he might have said, “You got to put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you put them to bed.”
Before you plan your next vacation, you may want to consider a truncated version of the Roadrunner journey. For if you trust, as I do, in the meditative quality of travel to challenge long-held beliefs, then Dilip D’Souza’s book will encourage you to fill up the gas tank and hit the road.
For the designers, builders, and maintainers of Interstate 80, a route traversed by RCO and his family on numerous, memorable road trips.