Ramblin' man makes sense of the road

November 07, 1993|By Michael Anft

Now that Six-Pack Jack nostalgia is in overdrive, owing no doubt to the wistfulness and ennui of 9-to-5 baby boomers, bookstore shelves are buckling under the weight of tomes by every would-be Jack Kerouac who has cause to travel, ponder and publish.

In the past year, at least a dozen books, including those with the hTC flimsiest of connections to the reckless spirit of Kerouac, have been released purporting to capture the "truth" and "essence" of the Lower 48.

Simply put, the underlying reasoning of the new breed of American road authors is this: In spite of the blanding of America through the pervasiveness of TV, pop culture and fast-food joints, in spite of all the tourist traps, redundant scenery and Howard Johnsons, there is a genuine, unique, vibrant American soul out there -- if you're willing to look hard enough to see it.

And judging by the quality of many of the works of the copy-Kerouac set (Andrei Codrescu's fine "Roads Scholar" excepted), they're wrong; road travel isn't all that glamorous. It's lonesome, filled with long bouts of tedium and unhappy distractions -- and much more filler than subject matter for writers.

For those of us who feel stranded by the neo-Kerouacians' road show, Fred Setterberg comes to the rescue in a gleaming white tow truck.

Mr. Setterberg may be a ramblin' guy, but he doesn't look for that nebulous "something" that codifies the American experience. He focuses on the milieus of six great authors, and how his own life fits in with what he sees and hears.

It's a large undertaking (especially in 166 pages), but Mr. Setterberg's rich, alternately humorous and profound prose captures not only place, but random conversations, his own apt reminiscences, wonder, awe -- and it's infused with a healthy dose of cynicism. He's smart enough to know that there is no one American anything, much less spirit or ethos.

The author is inspired to travel by Wally, his itinerant 19-year-old neo-hippie cousin, who is very impressed that Mr. Setterberg owns a couch that once bore the brunt of a slumbering Kerouac. Yet, while a fan of "On the Road," Mr. Setterberg does not deify. He rightly believes that Kerouac's over-analyzed classic "was about a couple of schmoes who roll around the continent like two marbles on a tray, goofing on the scenery and enjoying themselves."

Willing to roll around the tray himself, Mr. Setterberg opts to focus on the lands he has only read about, to "not miss the country that stood between my books and the real, hard sprawling world outside."

While his introduction may have portended nothing more than on-the-scene appreciations -- Larry McMurtry and his Texas, Willa Cather's Nebraska, Hemingway's Upper Peninsula, Twain's Virginia City, Zora Neale Hurston's New Orleans, Thoreau's Maine and Jack London's Oakland -- the travels themselves prove to be about much more.

Mr. Setterberg's characters, for example, are often more compelling than the clearest ones drawn by novelists. Having his sour Yankee buddy, Lonny, accompany him through Texas may seem like a bad idea at first, but it plays for plenty of contrapuntal yuks, with Lonny as resistant to a swagger and drawl as Mr. Setterberg is receptive.

Likewise, the absurd Sandy -- a Twain clone -- virtually infuses life into Mr. Setterberg's take on Virginia City. The author's proud, blue-collar father frames his son's musings on Jack London with a tangibility they wouldn't have otherwise.

Thumbnail, thoughtful literary biographies, vivid landscape writings and a gift for metaphor also inform the author's work. But what really makes "The Roads Taken" hold together are Mr. Setterberg's yarns.

A study of Twain's propensity for truth-stretching leads to Mr. Setterberg's hilarious remembrances of when he and Sandy were writing travel brochures, in a past career, for places they'd never visited. An argument with a New Orleans punk band practicing in the motel room next door develops into flashbacks of the author's own musical rebellion during his teen years -- and how the rhythms he heeded had started in New Orleans.

"The Roads Taken" is like that, a book that effortlessly makes sense out of things without being glib. The book begs for a second reading, friends with whom to discuss it and a vigorous, wandering spirit to match its own.

In that sense, Mr. Setterberg has gotten closer to Kerouac than anyone else lately.

Title: "The Roads Taken: Travels Through America's Literary Landscapes"

Author: Fred Setterberg

Publisher: University of Georgia Press

Length, price: 166 pages, $24.95

Mr. Anft is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

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