The Longest Road – Philip Caputo

I started writing this very dry, British syntaxish blog, realized I sounded like a snot, and deleted it immediately. On the long list of things I tend to be, a snot is not one of them.

This blog (blagh) is intended to serve as a place for me to jot my raw notes down as I go about the long journey of readying my book for agent-submission. The book is currently undergoing edits and is so run through with themes that it reads more like an essay collection that happens to be in chronological order than one long story (which where I’m trying to take it).

In order to re-orient myself, I am reading through a few dozen(!) travel books that I have selected based on year of publication, success of book, area of travel, gender of traveler, success of author, and reason for journeying. By doing this, I’ll (theoretically) be able to understand the travel genre, what makes a good travel book, and what watermarks I should be hitting in my own book.

It’s all very unprofessional putting this here, I know. I’m supposed to just show up with this perfect MS and hide the years of slaving away at my desk (“It’s perfect! I’m magic! Give me and my genius a massive advance, you peasant!”), but where’s the fun in that?

First Book: Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Artic Ocean.

Whenever I see a title like the one above, I’m immediately brought back to college, where every paper was titled something like “Faulking Around With Faulkner: Love, Sex, and Romantic Overtures in Chapters Four Through Seven of The Sound and the Fury.” Part of me loves them, part of me kinda wants to take a hot shower and weep for the loss of my academic innocence.

Anyway, titling travel books like they’re academic papers seems to be a thing, though I don’t know if it’s a good thing, per se. I have the impulse to do that to my own MS, but I’m keeping it in check for the time being.

Actual Thoughts: I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book. I mean, I think I did. Philip was a fun travel companion, though I enjoyed his wife’s intrusions more. The dogs had their own charm and gave a levity to the novel that may not have otherwise been there. Writing this, I realize that if it wasn’t for the wife and dogs, there may have been no humor at all in this book.

While travel books don’t have to be humorous, they’re very much day-to-day storying of someone’s life as they journey and life, generally speaking, is pretty amusing. Ironically funny, stupid funny, silly funny, things happen that just make you laugh. Every day. I didn’t get much of that from Mr. Caputo. Maybe it’s not his style.

Other things:

  • A few chapters had grayed out sections of information that otherwise wouldn’t have fit into the chapter in any logical way. I really appreciated that.
  • The breaks between book “sections” had photos of him as his wife as they traveled. I wouldn’t want that in my own book–just feels weird. His focus is more outward-oriented, towards people, places, scenery. Mine is more inward, reflections of self, reflections on the world. Having a photo of me every seven chapters would seem self-aggrandizing.
  • There are some very beautiful passages in here, ones where the emotion and thought around an experience Caputo is having or has just had start building and then… it dissipates. Unfinished. Like he was afraid to take that final step towards feeling and meaning.
  • The scenery descriptions (and there are many of them) read very I-am-a-journalist. Which he is. I tended to speed past them. I find myself doing the same when reading other books in other genres, so it is likely just a personal taste. (I’m also told that I don’t have enough scenery descriptions in my own MS, so… there’s that.)

On theme (my ever-present query), he’s wedged into almost every encounter he has with others the question of what holds America together. That’s the focus of his trip: discovering what keeps this increasingly polarized country “together.” Most every chapter has a dialogue with him and another (or several “anothers”) discussing their thoughts on this topic.

This is probably me, but it feels forced. Actually forced into the book. Like he had to have a common line running throughout the thing, so he came up with one. It’s not a bad idea–or an uncommon one. As I was compiling my “read list” for this project, I found (unsurprisingly) that the focus of many of the American travel books written in the last fifty years had themes of “holding the country together” or “the things that unite us.”

That’s not a topic that interests me, and the answers that people were giving him were either very pessimistic or incredibly hokey. When the book ended (spoiler alert), the answer he had come up with was “hope.” Hope holds the nation together. Everyone sang Kumbaya and held hands and it was the sort of feel-good that people probably wanted at the time of publication (right after the 2008/9 economic crash).

The end wasn’t for me.

Now onto the next book.