It turns out that you really can’t tell a book by its cover, or even from some of its reviews. In this case, the book is The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America by Tom Zoellner.
The book’s cover shows a road, a straight stretch of empty pavement that looks, what with red-rock mountains on the horizon, as though it its likely somewhere west of the Mississippi River. Nice pavement. Wide open spaces. Road trip!
I’d heard a review of the book on my local NPR station, which focused on the chapter titled “Searchlight,” a town not far south from where I live. A couple of weeks later, I read a review of the book in The New York Times, headlined “Last-Chance Power Drives: Time and again, American literature has returned to tales of great journeys.”
The NYT reviewer noted some great American travelogues, but also that in the 21st century, and especially in this year of Covid-19, Americans seem to have lost their urge to roam. The reviewer noted that while Zoellner is an editor and author, he’s also “an old-fashioned American vagabond,” so I was expecting something of a contemporary tome along the lines of William Least Heat Moon’s wonderful Blue Highways, Dayton Duncan’s Out West, or perhaps even John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.
And what really hooked me was the reviewer’s note that the book takes its title from The National Road, the nation’s first federal roadway that went from Cumberland, Maryland to, the reviewer said, Joliet, Illinois, which just happens to be my hometown. Problem is, Joliet wasn’t the western terminus of Thomas Jefferson’s National Road, which actually went to Vandalia, which was the Illinois state capital at the time and is more than 200 miles south of Joliet.
Still, after hearing one review and reading another, I found the book on Amazon, where the cover image heightened my anticipation. Click. On my doorstep two days later.
And what do I read when I open the book? A screed against the founding of the Mormon church, and a couple of paragraphs about how Zoellner doesn’t like cars, that he hasn’t washed a car since he was 18 years old, that the best one he’s ever owned was a “boxy and innocuous” 1985 Toyota Camry, appreciated primarily, it seems, because it survived nearly 250,000 miles, and an airborne experience that left the car with its “steering alignment slightly out of whack.”
Basically, this book isn’t so much a travelogue as Zoellner’s reporting on places he’s been or lived but how he’s climbed to the summit of nearly all of the highest points in the 50 United States and his reports on small-town corruption and demise, on the death of newspapers (including some of those for which he once worked), on the melting down of the melting pot, and how his grandmother’s home was destroyed so a McMansion could be built.
Reading only The National Road, I can see why someone might lose their urge to roam.
The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America
By Tom Zoellner
Hardcover, 264 pages