14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine

19 Feb

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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.



62 Responses to “14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine”

  1. Grab the Lapels February 23, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    Those authors all do well, but not airport well. You have to be EL James to do airport well. Basically, anything that helps you forget you’re at the airport! I noticed you number your books. Is that books per month, or do you start at the beginning of the year?

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova February 25, 2015 at 7:00 pm #

      I start at the beginning of the year. The blog started when a friend did something like this and I was curious how many books/ what books I actually read in a year. But this year I finished 2014 with a handful of backlog books I hadn’t blogged about yet, so my 2015 numbers are slightly inflated. It turns out I pretty consistently read around 35 books a year. More than one every two weeks, less than one a week. I *could* easily read a book a week if I had fewer obligations. :)

      • Grab the Lapels February 25, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

        When I started Grab the Lapels and began taking books for review, it BLEW MY MIND how many women sent me 400+ page novels. It’s making me read fewer and fewer books per year! I try to keep up with graphic novels to balance it out, which has also led me to discover some pretty neat women in the boys club world of comics.

      • badfish2 February 28, 2015 at 3:20 am #

        A very entertaining read! And Yikes!…35 books a year. I’m a slow reader, and take notes, so even slower. I assume you don’t watch reruns of Seinfeld, or anything else on TV?

        • Valerie Stivers-Isakova February 28, 2015 at 3:47 am #

          Well, I don’t watch a lot of TV. My husband likes it so I’m often reading while the TV is on. I love Episodes. Top Chef. Reruns of Larry David! Why do you take notes, badfish2?

          • badfish2 March 1, 2015 at 3:40 am #

            I never owned a TV until just recently–who has time for that? Things are different now. I take notes when reading…on a great line, or how a writer did something. I would like to say I’m a writer, but I just seem to dabble at it and not actually become one.

            • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 1, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

              I love taking notes on books. I am re-reading Black Lamb and Gray Falcon right now and finding the notes I took on this book 15 years ago to be fascinating, and SO different than what I’m flagging now. I am a large-tent person when it comes to writing. If you want to be a writer and you write…. you’re a writer. Just keep writing.

              • badfish2 March 2, 2015 at 4:14 am #

                Ha! A “large-tent” person…love that. Is that a saying people say where you are, or you just made it up for me?Good advice…”just keep writing.” Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life time, but he kept painting. So thanks, I’ll persist, if slowly. I have read maybe one book more than once: Demian by Hesse.

  2. inkblossom6 February 27, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    Reblogged this on Shelby's Word of Mouth.

  3. Mark Anthony General February 28, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Reblogged this on MARKY BLOGGER BUZZ.

  4. JacquiBe February 28, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Wonderful read!! Go you!! Im intrigued by the taking of notes too badfish 2. What an I missing out on? ;-)

  5. jamal9966 February 28, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    Emptiness of soul is what humans go through when they never belong to a higher power ” God ” . They will look desperately to find peace however, they will never find it unless they know why they are here .

  6. Justin terfa February 28, 2015 at 9:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on justinterfa.

  7. preetamnandal1 March 1, 2015 at 1:10 am #

    Reblogged this on Mobile world.

  8. bailoun March 1, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    “Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there…”

    I love this. Thank you.

  9. mjl336699 March 1, 2015 at 8:03 am #

    It is very good it really looks professional . :-)

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 1, 2015 at 7:36 pm #

      What do you mean?

  10. lorrain1 March 1, 2015 at 9:52 am #

    A lot of work…

    • lorrain1 March 2, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      Every country, area, Valley has the chance to surprise the visitor, walker. Each meeting … In the US, all is not perfect by any means. Yet many of my family resides there …

  11. progressivewatch March 1, 2015 at 6:16 pm #

    You know, this idea he talks about, having a vision of an ideal place, but it is something you can’t explain. That really sums up America.

    America is a land that reaches out to so many around the world, an ideal place, but if you ask them why, you get a million answers. America is an ideal place, because it is undefined. It is a land where you get to make the definitions.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 1, 2015 at 7:31 pm #

      “America is an ideal place because it is undefined.” So true. Very interesting.

  12. eldoretpress March 1, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    Reblogged this on eldoretpress.

  13. Sara Niles March 1, 2015 at 7:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on IMPACT Books & Art and commented:

  14. tommyakki March 2, 2015 at 6:05 am #

    Reblogged this on tommyakki.

  15. imaz78 March 2, 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Reblogged this on imaz78.

  16. isoldejpeg March 2, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on mild und leise.

  17. brentsuggs March 2, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Brent Suggs.

  18. missshreyapatel March 2, 2015 at 6:40 pm #

    America… Why does it feel so much like home for me, even though I’m from the UK?
    I envy those that live there…. You can go from skiing to beaches to canyons to built up cities… Cannot wait to visit it again!

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 3, 2015 at 12:18 am #

      The beauty of America is that you’re from here as soon as you say you are. Come again.:)

      • missshreyapatel March 3, 2015 at 8:50 am #

        Oh I intend to… This time I think a road trip in New England. Although having said that my friend just came back from New Orleans and it sounded amazing… The options are never-ending!

        • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 3, 2015 at 11:09 pm #

          Well, I grew up in New England so maybe that’s why I think New Orleans is such a better option! There is nothing in America or probably the world like New Orleans, it’s such a special city and the music and the food are fantastic. Watch the series The Treme if you haven’t, which takes place in New Orleans post-hurricane. This was actually why my husband and I went on vacation there recently and we did not regret it, despite it being winter. New England is really cool too, but maybe less different, seeing as you’re coming from Old England. You’re right though, the options are endless!

          • missshreyapatel March 3, 2015 at 11:11 pm #

            Thank you so much for your response. Will certainly give The Treme a watch! That is after I have caught up with House of Cards and The Blacklist!

      • Grab the Lapels March 4, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

        If any one is interested in New Orleans from a local’s perspective, I think the blog missywilkinson.com is fantastic! Her posts about Mardi Gras were interesting, to say the least.

        • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 4, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

          I had a second’s joy when I thought you lived in New Orleans! I’ll check out her blog. Thanks. Such a great city.

  19. artourway March 3, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    Lovely to meet you Valerie. Great post!

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 4, 2015 at 1:30 am #

      Nice to meet you too! Thank you.

  20. destineforfailure March 3, 2015 at 11:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on destineforfailure.

  21. J Hardy Carroll March 4, 2015 at 8:44 pm #

    I find it easier if I read a book at the same time as I have another one on my Kindle while I listen to a third on Audible. Who knew that the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo / As I Lay Dying / The Hobbit mashup would work so well?

    (reaches for bottle)

    (slits wrists)

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 4, 2015 at 8:50 pm #


      Harry Potter/ Great Expectations/ Gone Girl. I wouldn’t even need the razor. The blood would just spontaneously drain from my body.

  22. Prof. Absolut March 5, 2015 at 3:46 am #

    This is a great review and I think I am going to get this book and read it. I am going to shoot for a book a week, with notes and reviews on my new blog. I appreciate the review.


    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 5, 2015 at 11:39 am #

      That’s what I tried when I started this blog four years ago, but it turns out I don’t read that fast. I’m always so thrilled when people read based on my recommendations, thank you. Come back and share the URL telling us how you like it.

  23. Dr.Isaac March 5, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    The title of the book and topic has attracted me, I’m gonna add the book to my list, although I’m a slow reader as well in spite of school and work but I am sure that everyday some reading will do the job, :D trying to encourage myself.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 5, 2015 at 11:37 am #

      I encourage you as well! It’s a really great book. And if you are actually in the country your email address indicates, it will provide some nice winter escapism.

      • Dr.Isaac March 5, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

        Yep, I am in the country that my email address indicates to :pP thank you for the hint :)) I am looking forward to read your blog and reviews :D, that could be useful to target the most interesting books :D

        Всего хорошего тебе!

  24. AverageHumanBeings March 6, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

    I wish I could explore the country, hell, the world. I wish to see every mountain, every water fall, every lake. There’s so much to do. Sadly, we are occupied with modern annoyances that may keep us from doing that. If only life was a bit longer, long enough for me to do what I wish to do.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 2:44 am #

      I know, me too! I wish I had 12 lives and I could live in all these different cities and have 12 times as many children, too. I am probably ok without seeing every waterfall. :)

  25. Rika March 6, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Great article !!
    I love Murika

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 8, 2015 at 2:42 am #

      Thank you!

  26. Human Relationships March 9, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on Human Relationships and commented:
    Things I Like About America! Enjoy!

  27. TheKevin March 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm #

    It’s interesting the part about: “for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place…..” It didn’t look like he was looking for nowhere, it looked like he was looking for now-here. Something that was well within him but felt the need to keep moving physically towards it. Heck maybe he didn’t even know. Just my thought, great blog over all.

    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova March 9, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

      That’s a nice thought. It expresses the mystery of hitting the road. We can only be now-here, fully ourselves, if we’re also nowhere. Otherwise all this crap intervenes. At least that’s the allure. Thanks for your comment.

  28. scottedwardsinchicago March 11, 2015 at 4:43 am #

    Gosh I loved this review and the ideas shared in this book. I was born in South Louisiana, live in Chicago and now obsess on Wisconsin’s Door County and an island just beyond called Washington Island. There’s this cove with a white limestone beach with crystal clear Lake Michigan water and I wonder why is it that my life would be better if I lived there, among 660 Icelandic recluses. And it gets so cold, colder than an Wiccan priest withdrawing into a forest on the winter equinox. What is it about “over there” around the bend and corner that summons the soul? Perhaps this explains why I ride motorcycles.

    • Ivalleria March 11, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

      And I love this comment. You’re funny. I did not know that Wisconsin has a Door County but it sounds romantically distant in just the right way. I mostly read John Sandford for the sense of Minnesota landscape that is so different than where I am. Louisiana is another place I obsess over.

      • scottedwardsinchicago March 12, 2015 at 1:09 am #

        Of all states, Louisiana is truly unique in its culture. I grew up 20 miles off the coast in Cajun Country, heavily influenced by French Acadian culture marked by a melting pot of people (Northern transplants, Southerners, blacks, whites and even Texans) and Cajuns, a crazy-mad-wonderful-loving-fighting people surrounded by alligators, marsh, swamp, bayous, rivers, lakes, mossy picturesque oaks and the best seafood around. In my fantasy world, I’d take that special part of Louisiana, plop it next to Chicago, put the politicians in a leaky boat in mid-winter (they could walk back to shore on the Michigan side) and push Door County right next to Chicago. Hmmm, just missing mountains at that point. :)

  29. brlhome March 12, 2015 at 12:18 am #

    Reblogged this on BRL MUSIC.

  30. rainawareness March 17, 2015 at 2:45 am #

    America ≠ United States

    • Ivalleria March 17, 2015 at 2:47 am #

      Good point.

  31. BenjaminH March 17, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    “…but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country”

    Either I relate too well to your description of that phase of your life or your writing was the best part of this article. Either way, well done.

    • Ivalleria March 17, 2015 at 11:32 pm #

      Thank you very much! What a nice thing to say.


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