[If you care, I "read" this one as an audio book.]
I grew up on the idea of the Sunday drive, back when a lot of folks still had Sundays off, cars were big enough to be comfortable without being gas guzzlers, and gas itself was priced more cheaply than milk.
Because of this habit of piling in the car and finding places to go that were an hour or three away, I had the opportunity to see things that just aren't on your major vacation hot-spots. In addition, when we were on vacation as a family, we often picked a place at random and went where life took us.
Thus, I am fascinated with the odder parts of American life, like stopping by the Zane Gray Museum or seeing a Jimmy Stewart film in his hometown or going some place that has a metric ton of ceramic dinosaurs. Which means that someday, Mr. Geist and I really need to have a drink together--as long as he promises not to call me an idiot like he did to a conspiracy nut who later puts a gun to his head.
I don't often think about dream jobs, but I'm pretty sure Geist has one of mine. He gets to travel across the country, looking at the odder, smaller side of life. You'll find him at a watermelon festival perhaps, or watching school buses go to town on a demolition derby track. He'll talk to a person who runs a hamburger stand in a town of two as earnestly as another reporter might talk to Prime Minister Putin, and that's what makes this work so well.
You see, no matter how ridiculous things may get, like trying to determine who actually has the largest ball of twine or where in Minnesota is colder, Geist always treats his subjects with respect. That doesn't mean he's not critical of some of the things he observes (painting cows to make them look better comes to mind) or provide a wry spin (discussing raises taxes in a town with a population of one last person). Part of the charm of this book is that Geist never takes what he does all that seriously. However, even with taking jabs at the people around him, some of them even a little mean at times, you never get the feeling that Geist feels he is better than the people he interviews.
That's key, because if he was acting superior to people who are trying to make their claim to fame any way they can, it would come off as really mean. We can't all be on CBS, so some of us have to find a way to make our mark, even if it's just holding a unique parade in your two-block town. We all like being known for something, and in America, there's plenty of room for people to do everything from a headless chicken festival to celebrating the tow truck. Who is Geist to judge? He recognizes this, and acts accordingly. The result is a delightful set of stories, with just the right balance of irreverence and wonder.
The book shines best when Geist interviews people who are just trying to do what comes naturally. The 90+ year old man who writes a newspaper and delivers it by plane is a little scary, but shows that you never know what will keep you going over the decades. A postal worker shows that that mail must go through, even to a small town in the Grand Canyon. A lady finds her faith in serving the best barbecue chicken in Texas. None of these folks are people you're likely to live next to, but all of them find these unusual aspects of their lives are just normal for them. It's endearing, even as Geist makes light about how out of the mainstream they are.
Where the book suffers a bit is when Geist tries to be too clever. There are humorous lists that just aren't all that funny, for example, because I've heard the same comments before. A few of the jokes within the pages are canned, and there are places where you can tell that Geist is writing for an audience that's sometimes the lowest common denominator. Though I don't think he looks down on anyone, as I mentioned, Geist's sarcastic comments can come off a little bit mean as well from time to time, so just be aware there are going to be some places where you want to tell him he's being unfair.
Overall, however, I enjoyed this book a lot. Though I'd never visited any of the places that Geist mentions, primarily because a of lot of them are in the West or Midwest, I could make connections to trips I've made since I was barely old enough to walk. Heck, I'm still making those kind of trips today. Way Off the Road shows that there's more to America than the flashy parts, and does it in an irreverent way. It may not be a travel guide--or even a true travelogue--but it sure was a fun book to read.
Nancy Mitchell interviews David Lehman for PLUME
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