Long flat blacktop

Jane Smiley's most recent book is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel."

WHAT could be more ordinary than the subject of Robert Sullivan's new book, "Cross Country"? Sullivan himself points out that he has driven across the United States countless times, most often between New York and Oregon. The trip he records here is not only one of many but also the second crossing in a single summer, a West-to-East return leg that has no purpose beyond getting home. Nevertheless, the reader is invited along, if only to provide an audience for the reflections and ruminations that Sullivan's car-bound companions (his wife, son and daughter) do not care to listen to. Whether the reader cares to listen to them is, for a long time, an open question. And yet.

And yet, Sullivan's book is firmly fixed in a long and respectable literary tradition. Writers and travelers have been pondering the act of crossing America for almost as long as they have been doing it, and "Cross Country" is, by turns, grand, timely, intriguing, irritating, fascinating -- and nearly unendurable.

Sullivan's last book, "Rats," achieved almost iconic status. His method was similar to the one employed in "Cross Country" -- a digressive, but nevertheless obsessive, focus on a particular subject, including wide-ranging and often obscure bits of information, plenty of on-the-scene observation and a good measure of self-consciousness. There, however, his choice of subject was brilliant in its ubiquity, mystery and (pardon me, rats everywhere) flat-out nastiness. But travel by interstate in the U.S., while ubiquitous, is neither mysterious nor nasty, at least on the surface. Of course, Sullivan wouldn't necessarily see it this way.

At first, when the Sullivan family departs Portland, the theme is Lewis and Clark, because the author more or less intends to follow the explorers' route. Sullivan expresses both sympathy with, and a deep knowledge of, the pair. "[P]eople generally follow the Lewis and Clark trail "from Saint Louis to the Oregon coast, where the expedition spent the 1805 to 1806 winter," he writes. "But it is well known, at least among members of our Impala-driven expedition, that I personally prefer to think about their trip back to Saint Louis, in 1806, when everyone thought they were lost or maybe dead."

He is especially fascinated with Meriwether Lewis, who was "often moody," who made notes on the journey and who was unfortunately shot in the buttocks by another member of the expedition. Sullivan wants to achieve, in his car journey, some of Lewis and William Clark's more spectacular objectives (the Columbia River gorge), but he also has his own, more modest, goal, which is to get home in four days. He identifies with Lewis and Clark -- even though he and his family stay in motels and eat food from Kum & Go, he consistently refers to their trip as an "expedition."

In response, I am going to make my principal complaint right here: Sullivan is not the most pleasing long-distance companion, and his self-consciousness rapidly becomes tiresome, partly because the other members of the "party" -- his family -- are neither named nor characterized. As such, "Cross Country" is a narrative without a story. To be fair, this may have to do with Sullivan's perfectly understandable desire not to expose his wife and children in print. His virtues as a husband and father, though, translate to faults as an author. Every time the focus shifts from the road to life inside the car, there isn't much there. The son is the Son, the daughter is the Daughter, they do typical things, and the reader (this reader) sighs and skips ahead.

Perhaps worse, Sullivan does plenty of typical things, too -- typical both for himself (drinking lots of coffee) and for interstate travelers (stopping at Holiday Inn Express). Sometimes these activities lead to interesting mini-histories and sometimes they don't, but because of the continuity of the road itself and the rhythm of the journey, the author seems to feel he can't leave them out. He should have.

Much to the relief of everyone, the Sullivans do make their first night's goal, Montana's Lolo Hot Springs, in the Bitterroot Range, and, rather to everyone's surprise, they enjoy the dip. But then they are faced with the Great Plains, northern division (through to the Twin Cities), and as many (including they themselves) have discovered, the emptiness of the Plains is both mesmerizing and tedious.

Here, Sullivan begins to contemplate what becomes his real subject, the interstate highway system. It turns out that neither highways nor automobiles as we consider them today were inevitable. The reader begins to perk up. Part of the intrigue is that someone had to think of it all.

Sullivan starts with Carl Fisher -- bicyclist, inventor, salesman, entrepreneur, founder of the Indianapolis 500 and booster of the first cross-country route, the Lincoln Highway. Later, as the family leaves the Great Plains and enters the North Woods, Sullivan moves on to Thomas MacDonald, born in Montezuma, Iowa, educated at Ames, and subsequently in charge of road building for Iowa and the United States. MacDonald conceived of and built a lot of roads, originally for the purpose of getting farmers and their produce to market.

After the Second World War, Sullivan notes, farmers ceased to be the focus of the highway system, and national defense (but really corporate enrichment) took their place. By the time he makes this point, he has reached the East and is aching to get to New York. But Pennsylvania frustrates him, as it typically frustrates travelers. "Pennsylvania," Sullivan explains, "is a state misplaced to us cross-countryers, a state that is so big, that takes so much mile-passing effort, it ought to be in the western half of the United States." For him, it is dangerous too: crowded, full of road construction and presenting its greatest challenges through the Appalachians late in a long day.

Perhaps because of some frightening experiences with fatigue and bad roads -- an erratic driver ahead, in one instance, and impatient, honking, headlight-flashing truckers all around him, making it impossible to pass -- Sullivan's final verdict on the interstate highway system is not favorable. The roads are too vast, too hard to maintain, too isolating. In some ways, they are purposeless, unless their purpose is to promote the excesses of modern capitalism over every other value (including the value of good coffee). As Sullivan crosses the Fawn River in Indiana, he observes that the roads themselves have helped accelerate the degradation of the very rivers, streams and lakes to which Americans like to drive.

By now, the reader is used to Sullivan. The journey through the East has made him less self-involved and more informative. Want to know how it all works and what it means? He does have some interesting thoughts, as well as interesting details. What he does not have is a light touch. One of his reminiscences here is of the worst cross-country trip he ever took, and as the story unfolds, I agree with him -- it was pretty bad, especially the part where he realized at the last moment that his rental van was too tall for an overpass he was approaching and the road too narrow for him to turn around. But as told in this book, it is not especially entertaining. Still, his artless and obsessive narrative style is part and parcel with his appetite for information and detail. His family is forbearing, and glad to get home. What the reader may discover is that this is what matters most, when all is said and done. *

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