A Romanian immigrant plays out his dreams on the American road

October 08, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

WASHINGTON — The world's only Romanian poet-anarchist walks into a Washington restaurant looking pretty much like you'd expect him to: elfin, ageless, dark eyes peering intently out from underneath a cascade of tightly wound curls, amusingly ludicrous in green-plThe world's only Romanian poet-anarchist walks into a Washington restaurant looking pretty much like you'd expect him to: elfin, ageless, dark eyes peering intently out from underneath a cascade of tightly wound curls, amusingly ludicrous in green-plaid sports coat and high-top gym shoes. Part genius, part con man, part part-player and all hustle. He may be Romanian as all get-out, but he's also a quintessential American figure: star on the go, hacking a flick.

And of course he looks something else, too: utterly familiar, at least to the eyes of a man who once upon a time edited a book review section of The Sun.

For Andrei Codrescu got one of his starts -- a complex man, he had many starts -- in Baltimore in the mid-'70s when he taught for a time at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and other institutions and began the career that has taken him to the silver screen by writing . . . book reviews!

For the record, some other starts: his draft notice into the Romanian army. No, thank you, he said, and was promptly "sold" to Israel for $10,000. Instead he showed up in Detroit, courtesy of Jewish Family Service, which sponsored him, and ended up living in Charles Lindbergh's house! Things like that just keep happening.

But his start as a commentary writer came one day when he appeared at the editor's desk brandishing his newly published book (the first of 25) and demanded in an accent that sounded like a cross between Vlad Tepish the Impaler and Bela Lugosi the actor, books to review. Ask and ye shall receive; he got the books. Soon, he was contributing to The Sun's op-ed page, where he still regularly appears, and then on National Public Radio, where he became known as an acerbic commentator.

Now, after a move to Louisiana, (he teaches at L.S.U. and edits a literary magazine called Exquisite Corpse) he's become both the auteur and the object of a movie.

"Road Scholar," opening today, chronicles his mild adventures living an American teen-ager's dream: driving a big red '68 Cadillac ragtop from coast to coast and seeking weirdness and passion wherever it lurks.

"I got a call one day," he says, "from [director] Roger Weisburg, who had heard me on NPR and asked if I was interested in making a movie. He liked my sensibility and use of language. He thought I'd be perfect for his project. He wanted me to drive across country in a big red Cadillac. It was a wonderful idea. Except for one thing. All my life I have had two claims to fame. One was that I was born in Transylvania. And two was that I didn't know how to drive."

Now, Codrescu's second claim to fame must be "Road Scholar," as his driving lesson forms the comic introduction to the film.

But Andrei, one question. How come -- no Baltimore? Aren't we as weird as Detroit or New York or Chicago or some of the other places you stop?

"Well," says Codrescu, "I really wanted to include Baltimore. But when we got down to the budget, it was either Baltimore or Detroit and somehow Detroit, with its heritage as all-American car manufacturer to the world, won out."

Maybe Baltimore will make it in the sequel.

Anyway, "Road Scholar" has caused a minor ripple in the poet's life and for now, Codrescu will ride the wave as far as it takes him. What could be more American and Romanian at the same time?

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