[Did a version of this review for the Hindustan Times]
“Everyone’s seeking change. Know what um sayin’?” writes Avirook Sen in the opening chapter of Looking for America. It’s a sly bit of wordplay, used to link a wheelchair-bound man begging with a coffee cup on a Chicago street corner and Barack Obama’s PR machinery inviting donations for the 2008 election campaign. But the line is also a mood-setter: this book is about the author’s road-trip across the US in an attempt to get to know a country struggling with recession, with the repercussions of the war in Iraq and with the burden of history as it moves towards a date with its first black president. It’s a time when America too is “seeking change”.
Parts of Looking for America should be an eye-opener for the Indian reader whose impressions of the US have come primarily from mainstream Hollywood movies – the ones that present “America” as a sum of the lives of beautiful people in the coastal metropolises. Sen spends time in the in-between places, in states and towns that you might only dimly be aware of, and his journeys in Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains provide a window to the more mundane aspects of life in the country. Among the places he travels to are Gary, Indiana (now a derelict town but historically significant for electing the country’s first black mayor); Stone Mountain, Georgia (once a hub for the Ku Klux Klan, but now a place where a white man, a former drug mule, asserts “I’m for Barack”); Dinosaur, Colorado, where he learns that a chunk of the state’s votes will be determined by who is the better president for hunters; and the house of Joe the Plumber in Toledo, Ohio.
Along the way there are chance encounters and strange visions, such as a glimpse of a lone camel on a green Texan ranch. The prevalent tone is warm and conversational, though there are a few flat jokes. (“The Jackson Five lived here, but they beat it a long time ago,” he says of the town of Gary. And this about a Gujarati who directs him to a Kentucky Fried Chicken office: “It was a little odd to ask this particular species of vegetarian how to get to the place that began the war against the chicken – a bird he probably had no quarrel with, unless it owed him money.”)
Those of us who are fed stereotypes about Western permissiveness tend to lose sight of what a conservative place the US is in many ways – not least in the religious fundamentalism of swathes of the Christian population. In this context, Sen’s visit to Dayton, Tennessee – where the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial, pitting evolution against Biblical creation, took place in 1925 – is revealing, as is his experience at a church service in Alabama. I thought I knew a bit about the Scopes Trial, but until I read this book I didn’t know it took place in Dayton mainly because a waning coal company wanted to cash in on the publicity, and that even the arrest of the schoolteacher John T Scopes was carefully stage-managed.
On the other hand, much of my knowledge about the trial comes from the classic film Inherit the Wind, and there’s something comforting about the fact that Sen himself uses pop culture as reference points (a young black truck driver reminds him of “Bubba” in Forrest Gump; his curiosity about the town of Saginaw is fuelled by the Paul Simon song “America”; in Fargo he discovers that no one says “Yaah” the way they do in the Coen Brothers film of the same name). It adds to the sense that the book is being written not from a position of remote authority but by someone who is finding his own way around, picking up things as he goes along.
Which also means that Looking for America has a certain inbuilt randomness – an occupational hazard for any narrative non-fiction endeavour of this sort. More than a unified whole, it’s a collection of vignettes – some very interesting, others less so – and there are inevitable hits and misses. Some bits – a report of an odd, Samuel Beckett-like conversation between two people sitting behind Sen in a bus, for instance, or the more overt political analysis towards the end – feel like they could have been tucked into an “Extras” section at the back of the book.
However, given that the author’s intention wasn’t to present a single proposition and stick doggedly with it, the free-flowing format mostly works. Eventually it’s the little things that hold this book together, such as the pen portraits: an elderly woman whose rhetoric suggests that she might have ghostwritten Bush’s speeches (“I do know that the end-time war, Armageddon in Revelation, is going to be somewhere in the East”), a harried coach attendant ineffectually hitting on two passengers, a black woman who directs racist taunts at "fuckin' mixtures", a born-again Republican who turned anti-abortionist because she herself couldn’t have a baby at age 30 and it seemed so wrong to see 17-year-old girls wasting their opportunities! Or that man in the wheelchair who says “Anything’s possible, know what um sayin’?” It could be the catchphrase for the book and for the period it chronicles.