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Review: 'The National Road' describes what America means to author Tom Zoellner

The National Road

THE NATIONAL ROAD: Dispatches from a Changing America. By Tom Zoellner. Counterpoint. 272 pages. $26.95.

Tom Zoellner wanted to explore a marvel of cohesion in a divided time.

“How was it possible, I wondered, that all of this American land — in every direction — could be fastened together into a whole? How could all those unseen cities, all those drab little towns, all those races and languages, all those hundreds of millions of flawed human beings with vastly different stories and troubles be kept hanging together in a consensus that centered around nothing more than a four-page rulebook and a set of disputed principles” (the Constitution)?

Recognizing, and sharing, Thoreau’s existential fear of “that terrifying wholeness that defies all attempts at eyewitness description and even language itself,” Zoellner set out by car, as he so often has, to glean the answers, including some he wasn’t necessarily looking for.

One discovery, apart from the fraying of cohesion’s fabric, was that our national concept of geography has undergone a major shift, that much of our country was slowing down and staying in place after decades of manic mobility.

“Place is less important than it has ever been to those who can free themselves from it, yet more important to those who aren’t able to leave it. … Those without the means or desire to move out are caught in a web of diminishing opportunities.

“The new zones of exclusion have shut out Americans from their own country, through ways that are both literal and perceived. Winner cities have become havens of inequality and nearly impossible to navigate for those drawing old-school paychecks from retail jobs or public schools.”

And the generally liberal values of these “winner cities” are regarded suspiciously by those on the geographic outside, looking in.

Zoellner, politics editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books and an instructor at Chapman University and Dartmouth College, argues that our over-simplified demarcation separating “coastal elites” from “real Americans” is more a matter of location than values.

“If you want to know Americans, look at where they live first. Look at the land. Geography is our bounty; it has also become a curse. American place is not what it once was — neither in shape, nor optimism.”

The question of who we are as a people eludes a definitive answer, but his collection of essays offers a penetrating look at that controversial, sometimes nettlesome question.

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Zoellner has traversed the United States alone, coast to coast, no less than 30 times, with hundreds of lesser crossings that have taken him to all the 48 contiguous states. (He is also nearing the finish line of his goal to hike to the crest of each state’s highest peak).

For him, the open road is not just about freedom; it is a gateway to the kind of “universal citizenship” he hopes exists, and longs for.

“I suppose my urge ... is an oblique method of trying to pack as much Americana into the manuscript of memory as possible.”

He has seen much, plumbed the nature of even more, from the curious theology of Mormonism to how King Philip’s War in Puritan New England set the stage for the destruction of Native America. Zoellner admits to trace elements of arrogance in his motorized approach, and confides that the lure of wrecked landscapes, not least industrial ones, always has been strong for him. He loves driving to behold them, albeit with a twinge of ecological guilt.

“There is little I love more than the spell of motorized land journey, a languorous day, a vague forward-looking destination in mind and a full tank of gas,” writes Zoellner, a one-time reporter for the Savannah Morning News.

Possessed of a keen moral sense, he locates all the touchstones, bridges the fault lines and brings to life many emblems of American history, all the while assaying the plague of partisan politics and environmental decay. Zoellner exposes naiveté, folly and corruption with calm, persuasive clarity. There is also a superb essay on the long and protracted death throes of the daily newspaper and the loss of a sense of place that papers so often conferred.

This is not to say the collection lacks humor, hope or observations of haunting beauty, for it harbors each. But the tone is largely one of melancholy.

“And this is America, too — a country of destruction and reinvention where the scythe sits on the table next to the blueprint. ... More than a flag, a tribe, an ethnicity, a legal agreement, a cluster of art, or a production of culture, America is a civilization of whereness. Our shared geography between the oceans is the lowest common denominator within this clashing territory of strangers. The land that we gain and lose in endless cycle is the substance of our national communion; this road of constant change is our blotchy and beautiful inheritance.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer an editor in Charleston.

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