Friday, May 16, 2014

William Least Heat-Moon, River-Horse

I've long admired the huge tomes of William Least Heat-Moon, which are larger even than the volume of pages that they occupy: at a little over 400 pages, Blue Highways shouldn't seem all that long, but it's the record of 13,000 miles of driving around the United States (mapped interactively here); focused obsessively on a single county in Kansas, PrairyErth: A Deep Map shouldn't feel that immense, but I gather than its 650 over-sized pages are entrancingly slow as a consequence of their richness. (Is it meaningful that it has inspired its own fandom movie, I wonder?)

I've long admired them, but I haven't read them. I've meant to, though, and I've finally begun, with my first completion being River-Horse: Across American by Boat, being a near-Quixotic first-world-problems memoir of a trip from New York City to Portland, Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean, almost entirely by boat across the upper third of the United States. Like Blue Highways, River-Horse follows Heat-Moon's apparently focused wanderings in a determined attempt to learn what American means, while at the same time recounting his self-inflicted abandoning of a marriage. It's not about the marriage, or the separation, and yet neither book would occur without it, and neither one makes sense fully unless you keep in mind the tension between the coming into knowledge and the choice against marriage.

It's immensely enjoyable, River-Horse, if you can buy into it and if you can set aside all of the conditions making it come about (particularly the leisure, the planning, the bankroll, as Randall Roorda noted in his extremely wise review). Even though I managed mostly to set aside all those things, the pleasures of the book have been surprisingly fleeting: intense at the time, but fleeting, as hard to keep a hold on as can be Heat-Moon's prose and occasionally near-encyclopedic knowledge:
The inside of the river was slick with frog skins, sharp with fish fins, a dim realm still warming from the long Dakota winter and ready to be shot full of the spurt and squirt of milt, the bottom alive and everlastingly creeping about and wanting nothing more than food, safety, and a little sex, as it the creatures were the dullest of desk-bound scriveners with no urge to find the mountains, to cross them down to the sea--those undertakings they left to the world above them, to migratory birds from rain forests and jungles, to humans who could only dream of the ill-lit under-river world. (p.305)
That being quite the turmoil of a sentence, but also just one long sentence among many.

River-Horse is a book that's easy to fall into, but easier to extricate yourself from than I'd like. Maybe it's just that I feel with this book what I've so often felt when confronted by declarative art produced by the American 1960s generation, namely that their consuming self-examination leaves their art inaccessible and meaningless to the rest of us, though apparently intimate and timeless.

Weird, the experience of not being able to recommend a book that you found pleasing, but that's where I'm at with River-Horse. A bunch of well-read, mostly well-heeled middle-aged men travel across America by boat, taking a trip that no one has ever done before in just this way, talking loftily about Literature and Culture, making self-confidently self-deprecating jokes about how Fate and Coincidence are helping them along: the book's aware and thoughtful about colonialism, but it sure as hell isn't an object lesson in decolonization.

Kind of like if the Rolling Stones wrote a protest song, which you know would get your feet moving and deserve to get lots of play, but would mostly just perpetuate the Stones industry. I've bought that album, but no matter how grinding the Keith Richards guitar or lyrical the Heat-Moon prose, the best I'm going to feel is conflicted.

1 comment:

theresa said...

Thanks for this, Richard, and for the link to RR's review. I read BH and P years ago -- they were gifts from Charles Lillard -- and liked them for their spacious sense of geography and history. And for their untidy rambling style. Yes, I wished (occasionally) for something more but was glad to have read them.
tk