Hstorian takes a few odd turns in bus trip through America

June 06, 1993|By Michael Anft

THE MAJIK BUS:

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY.

Douglas Brinkley.

Harcourt Brace & Co.

` 528 pages. $24.95.

Hofstra history professor Douglas Brinkley had a bold idea: Bus a group of students across the country for college credit, show them the "unfiltered" America, and reunite them with the glories and foibles of its past.

With nods to such geographical and spiritual trailblazers as Lewis and Clark, Whitman and Thomas Wolfe, Dos Passos and Steinbeck, and Kerouac and Cassady, Dr. Brinkley leads his 16 charges on a six-week trek, then records what he and they saw -- the sights and the sites, the deified and the downtrodden, the natural and pop cultural.

For all the grandiosity of the undertaking, however, "The Majik Bus" ends up being more mundane than Odyssean. Dr. Brinkley's attempts to fuse biography with travelogue, and to stock American history with literary radicals and (especially) popular culture with serious discourse, often ramble. And it's not with the elan of the free-spirited sojourner, either.

Dr. Brinkley wants to be all things to all readers: hip man of the '90s, reactivated '60s activist, scholar, father figure, producer of literature. Thus, the true Odyssey here is the effort and time the reader spends extracting essence from the author's self-overblown persona.

The first claim, that Dr. Brinkley wants to be seen as a chronicler of "today," would seem almost too ridiculous to refute, if only he didn't mention ad nauseam what cool tune was playing on the bus's tape deck. He feels the need to set the tone for each leg of the journey with a song. It gets redundant and corny -- and quickly.

Furthermore, tragically unhip Dr. Brinkley has a strange way with album titles ("Exiles From Main Street," "Songs From 'Drella," "Never Mind the Bullocks . . .") and musicians' names ("Dwight Yokum," "Ozzy Osborne") that a detail-minded editor should have tamed.

Equally tiresome is his penchant for shameless product placement ("There, we guzzled down cans of Lipton Iced Tea and Countrytime Old-Fashioned Lemonade and haphazardly threw around the Nerf football"), making one envision the bus as a rolling billboard.

One can be forgiven for wondering if, despite his efforts to deny it, Dr. Brinkley believes that true pop culture stopped in 1973, for he constantly trumpets blues acts, Haight-Ashbury, and the Chosen Generation's litany of saviors: Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, William S. Burroughs, the Grateful Dead. He argues unconvincingly that Mr. Dylan and Mr. Kesey -- two who might charitably be called "survivors" -- have more than historical relevance. Bosh.

Similarly, his one-paragraph write-off on the twentysomething "Yo Generation" trades in sense for pro-yuppie sentiment, laying loads of guilt at the feet of Depression babies, but neglecting to mention that self-righteous recovering hippies have a virtual stranglehold on the media and aren't giving up the few remaining good jobs that America-in-Decline still has. (Grab a clue, Doug: You're the enemy of youth -- at least as many of them perceive it.)

Still, one must concede a few points. At times, "The Majik Bus" becomes refreshingly poignant. While Dr. Brinkley may make meetings with Graceland, Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Mr. Burroughs, Mr. Kesey and Son Seals seem boring, his writing achieves life when reality blindsides him and his crew. Dr. Brinkley, it turns out, is a decent reporter when he's shaken out of his feel-good mantra.

So, when Dr. Brinkley is mugged in Georgetown, he delivers a sensitive, well-informed aside on Rock Creek Park, Washington's racial dividing line. When Ferndale, Calif., is rocked by an earthquake, the Majik Bus, steered by Dr. Brinkley's admirable sense of altruism, helps residents clean up.

Moments like these bring Dr. Brinkley closer to his beloved Kerouac, who loved the spontaneity of the road, the feel of the endless horizon slapping him upside the head every now and again to remind him he was alive. The rest, alas, is a thinly veiled exercise in yuppie nostalgia.

Mr. Anft is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

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