cover image Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America

Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America

Bill Barich, Walker & Co., $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8027-1754-2

If there is one idea that defines America, it is the belief that taking a long road trip is the best way to define America. In this perceptive, optimistic reprise of John Steinbeck's 1962 Travels with Charley, Barich reveals the heartland along a Delaware–Kansas–San Francisco axis of narrow highways through small towns during the 2008 election campaign and economic collapse. Barich allows that this slice of Middle America is whiter, more rural, and more Republican than the country as a whole. It's also, one feels, a traveler's America of cheap motels and lousy chain restaurants, of passing conversations with storekeepers and hospitality workers used to putting up a genial, guarded front for potential customers. (He does get people to divulge their political views, which are an unpredictable mix of sensible concerns and Limbaughesque balderdash.) Barich offers lighthearted travelogue and pithy sketches—Coloradans are "fair and square-jawed, with excellent teeth and no sense of irony"—but also darker reflections on strip-mall blight, vacant hero worship at a Sarah Palin rally, and Indiana's dejected, crystal meth–numbed backwoods. His insights aren't earthshaking—immigrants are still striving, teens are still idealistic—but Barich is a diverting commentator on the landscape streaming past the car window. (Oct.)