Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Review: Lost in America by Colby Buzzell

It appears that someone over at HarperCollins saw my previous review of Colby Buzzell’s first book, My War, that I wrote last March, because they sent me an advance copy of his latest, Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey, which is coming out in September.  I remember looking for more info on him after reading My War, and not finding much, except for an article at Esquire, and some blog posts about how he got called back up for IRR duty, but got discharged before going back to Iraq because of PTSD or alcohol abuse or whatever they call it these days.  So I was happy to hear he had another book coming out, and I was curious to see how it went.

I mentioned in my other review that I’m always skeptical of people who do a successful blog and then turn it into a book, which was all the rage a few years back.  It’s not that I think this is good or bad; it’s just that when people blog about their life and the biggest moment in their life and turn it into a good project, when you ask them to do a second book, it’s almost always garbage.  I mean, Citizen Kane might be the best movie in the world, but if it came out in 2011 and made bank, you know they’d do a CK2 with reporter Jerry Thompson played by Ted McGinley or some shit, and they’d do it in 3D, so there would be all these scenes of Chuck Kane throwing glasses of water or shoving spears into the audience.  (“Wow, that sled was coming right at me!”)  And half the time, the second book by a blog-to-book author is this whiny tome talking about the huge letdown of having to do talk shows and meet famous people and go to dinner parties and get their URL plastered on the sides of busses.  So I was seriously curious what would happen in this book.

Buzzell’s assignment was to take the great American road trip, to retrace Kerouac’s footsteps and head across the country and report what was going on in that big space between New York and LA.  He was told to “write a love letter to Kerouac”, and fortunately, he didn’t really do that.  I was hoping this would not turn into some overly academic circle-jerk that treated the Kerouac journey as authentically as Olive Garden turns out Italian food.  In fact, very little time’s spent talking about Kerouac, finding parallels between his work and the world today, or pondering why Jack looked for kicks.  That was all quickly brushed aside as Buzzell set out in his ’64 Mercury Comet, driving east and looking for his own version of kicks.

There are some strange parallels that Buzzell doesn’t consciously ponder here.  Kerouac and friends set out on their travels partly as a reaction to the Iraq of their generation, which was World War 2.  Jack struggled with the death of his father, and Buzzell talks greatly about the memories of his mother, who died from cancer right before he started his trip.  And like Kerouac’s attempts to reconcile his place in humanity, Buzzell wonders about his recent marriage, his new child, and how all of those pieces are supposed to fit together.

Probably the biggest takeaway from the book is that the middle class is dead, and the middle of America is a prime example of it.  He stumbles through various jobs at day laborer places, talks to people living on minimum wage, hangs out with guys stripping Detroit buildings of their copper pipes, and sees firsthand the abject poverty and lack of any hope in places like Cheyenne, Omaha, and the former motor city.  It’s like his own version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, except I thought her book was a pretentious slow-pitch to the NPR crowd, while his was more authentic.

Is this pure journalism?  No.  But that’s the struggle, and one that he acknowledges: you need some kind of plot or gimmick or device to provide forward motion in a book like this, and he struggles through the 297 pages to find that.  You can’t just load up a car in San Francisco and say “go!” and write down each place you stop for gas and call it a book.  There could have been many different ideas that would have propelled the book more, that he mentions but never returns to.  Like, what if he would have taken that book advance and drove from SF to NY and stopped at every VFW in between, hoisting beers and asking the patrons what they thought about America?  What if he did try to only survive on the money he got from those shit jobs?  What if he tried to look up every army buddy in his platoon, John Rambo style, and see what they made of their lives?  What if he pulled a Hunter Thompson and searched for “the American Dream”?  He has his motives and he ends up doing the work as far as remembering his mom and his past, but it’s not a focused effort toward any one thesis.

The writing in this book seemed a bit better than the last.  I don’t think he’s completely found his voice, and I found some clunkiness in places, but for every point where he violated the show-don’t-tell rule, there was another point with incredible detail and clarity.  Some of the best examples of this were his depictions of Detroit.  It’s easy for outsiders to simply say “Detroit == Somalia/Bosnia/Tripoli/whatever”, but there is some strange duality in the old houses versus the abandoned stores, the proud residents and the scared whiteys.  He explores a lot of the urban terrain, which is something a bit cliche now that every hipster doofus in a fedora is out wandering abandoned warehouses with their digital SLR, but it’s coming from this guy who was in the shit, who had the crazy experiences in Iraq and knows what real devastation is like.

This book is sure to piss off some people, because Buzzell isn’t easily pigeonholed.  He’s got some strange allegiances, like his odd infatuation with Wal-Mart and views on Fox News.  He didn’t drive a hybrid, instead choosing an old dinosaur V-8, and instead of being fiscally responsible, he spent his nights blackout drinking.  It’s not like his last one, where it’s easy to pitch it and say “read this if you want to know about Iraq.”  There are a dozen other books about cross-country driving or exploring the underbelly of poverty that I’d recommend over this one.  And yeah, the message is not cheery, from an economic standpoint. But this one was a good read, and I’d love to see what he knocks out next.