There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country. Or really I was thinking about elsewhere, freedom, escape from myself and towards a place where no one would expect anything of me.
I never left Brooklyn, but that’s my road story. Something about the map of America seems to evoke them, to call forth the idea that there’s a place out there where one could dispense with the bullshit, live the right way, just be.
That this itself is known bullshit and escapism only makes it more attractive.
Poe Ballantine is a master of the road story, a drunk, writer and late-bloomer, lover of women, laborer at crap jobs who, in his first published book, Things I Like About America, chronicles decades of drift. At some point he says he’s written 17 unpublishable novels, that 90 percent of what he writes is no good. His age skips from 17 to 28 to 43. He takes busses and stays in motels. He lives in Eureka, Louisville, Niagra Falls. He’s a man with no ties, down to his last few dollars, going somewhere new. There’s something deeply consoling about this much freedom…and this much failure.
And oh is his voice great.
Here he is describing an early encounter with crack cocaine:
The first inhaled hit of volatilized cocaine is the best: it launches you through the roof of the sky. There is no greater high. It makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe. You love, with the power of God, all things: house plants, bumblebees, lint balls, even the cat shit in the sandbox beneath the sink. I thought of Charlene and loved her for once purely, without resentment or remorse, without a trace of indignation for having neglected me. I longed to share this feeling with her, this unfathomable, infallible, and virtuous love. So I called her apartment but she wasn’t home.
It’s witty, unpretentious writing with many great turns of phrase. The high of crack “launches you through the roof of the sky” and “makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe.” Elsewhere he says, “I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four.” Elsewhere yet, running out of money, he writes, “I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission.” I liked the image of the feet, his ability to paint himself into a landscape.
There’s a point when the traveling gets to be too much, when the bad jobs reach their nadir, when he dreads again confronting, “the strangers, the empty room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and the poverty.” So he goes back to collage, likes it, almost graduates, but doesn’t stay, because,
“How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd?”
This brings us to the why of the road story. In the chapter “Never and Nowhere,” Ballantine says that
“for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive.”
This is so strange that it bears examination. He’s not looking for an idealized way to live, he’s looking for a nowhere. I don’t understand this exactly, but I sense truth it in, the truth that makes road stories sad, haunted by suicide, driven by hope and failure in equal measures. Maybe when we hit the road we’re looking for a safe place to fail among all the other failed people, an anonymous room, a lowered expectation. Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there.
Ballantine almost kills himself, but then he makes it through somehow, and the book is evidence that his career slowly blossoms by its own lights.
This is another gem from Portland, Oregon small-press Hawthorne, who also publish Lidia Yuknavitch and Tom Spanbauer. These books are so great, so likeable, so well-written that it’s hard to understand why they aren’t front-and-center in every airport in America. The world would be a better place, I tell you what.