There is something quintessentially American about feeling compelled — whether it be by the lyrics of a song (“Promised Land” by Chuck Berry), or by the journey of another writer — to jump on a bus (or a train or a car) and ride across the country. Here are three books that celebrate seeing the United States at eye level.
Four Seasons on Back Roads
By Paul Theroux
441 pages. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (2015)
In Theroux’s 10th travel book — his first, “The Great Railway Bazaar,” an account of his solo journey from London to Tokyo to Moscow and back, mostly by rail, became a New York Times best-seller — he returns stateside, taking us below the Mason-Dixon line to Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas. He avoids big cities and opts instead to meander through “the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.” He goes to gun shows and interviews people like preachers, mayors, and housing and poverty experts; our reviewer noted that Theroux’s “remarkable gift for getting strangers to reveal themselves” and eye for landscape makes it worthwhile to tag along on his journey.
One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States
By Pete Jordan
Harper Perennial. (2007)
In 1990, Jordan was a college dropout, bouncing from one dishwashing job to another, when he came up with the idea to attempt to wash dishes professionally in all 50 states. (Spoiler: He only makes it to 33.) He ends up in a variety of unconventional locations: an oil rig off the Gulf Coast, a communal farm in Missouri, a kosher kitchen in Portland, Ore. He writes about how a place’s cultural features, such as racial dynamics in New Orleans, leak into the back rooms of restaurants. And he even includes a bit of history. The reader learns, for instance, that the dishwasher was invented in 1886 by a wealthy socialite who was tired of her servants breaking the china.
Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens
By Andrew Beahrs
323 pp. The Penguin Press. (2010)
This book is inspired by Mark Twain’s 1880 memoir, “A Tramp Abroad,” in which he describes his pursuit of American comfort foods in Europe: hot biscuits in the South, black bass in Mississippi, croakers in New Orleans. When Beahrs read Twain’s book, he realized that the foods were regional, fresh from the grasslands, woods and waters that were native to the community. On a quest to find out whether industrialization had eliminated these foods, he decided to follow in Twain’s footsteps, and explores how changes in local ecosystems and landscapes may have affected the change in people’s diets. He entwines passages from Twain’s original with his own adventures, like camping in Illinois to observe the prairie chicken, or eating raccoon at a Coon Supper in Arkansas. His re-enactment is both a travelogue and a literary study.
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