William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey Into America belongs on any list of classic road trip novels. A Google search on road trip novels brings up several lists of great American road trip novels. Many of the titles are ones that everyone has heard of, if not read: On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson. Blue Highways holds its own with any of those books, and you’ll find it on many of those lists.
The background of the book is something all of us can understand—life kind of falls apart, so you hit the open road to think about things. Least Heat Moon lost his job, his marriage falls apart, so he sets off to find America, driving and living in his van. The United States is not the only country with open spaces, but we are lucky in that the trails through our open spaces have in many cases become paved roads. We are doubly blessed in being such a diverse country. One thing you notice from Blue Highways is how different people are across America, and how similar. The book is one of the best observations of the little things in America that I’ve ever read.
Blue Highways is not without its faults. The author takes the caricature of the arrogant, more-cultured-than-thou, nouveau blasé academic to a whole new level. It doesn’t take long for his arrogance to rub you the wrong way, and you get the impression that if you met the author, you wouldn’t like him. However, by the end of the book I realized that the author comes off this way because his pretense of culture is really all he had, at least at that point in his life. He had his doctorate, but he had no job and his marriage had fallen apart. He was a failure at everything but his education, so that is what he clung to and brandished, because his failures were too hard to face, though I think by the end of the book he realized he couldn’t run from them and he does finally face them.
In addition to Least Heat Moon’s arrogance, the book is a slow read. Very slow. Parts of the book are like watching grass grow, only a lot less exciting. After a while, finishing it becomes a quest. Somehow, the author managed to catch some of the monotony that is part of every road trip. There were many times I put the book down because it was just too slow, but I always picked it back up again.
Despite the painfully slow pace and the author’s snotty attitude, the book is worth finishing. Looking past the author’s “I’m so cultured” commentary, there are some truly poignant observations on America. After finishing the book you want to hit the road yourself. That, I think, is what makes a road trip novel great.
Review Submitted by: Christopher Mehl, Ph.D.
Rating: Highly Recommended