The Bookworm: Cross Country


Cross Country: Fifteen Years and Ninety Thousand Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill an Elephant by Robert Sullivan. 416 pages. Bloomsbury. 2006.

When he left office in 1961, Eisenhower gave one of his most famous speeches: “In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” And yet, by signing the legislation that began the construction of the interstate highway system, Eisenhower, in the words of one historian, “had done as much as anyone to extend the power of the military-industrial complex that so worried him in his farewell address.”

The Bookworm post series is being renovated. I’m introducing a new format and new features to jazz up the dull presentation. For now I’m playing around, experimenting, so bare with me while I make improvements through trial and error.

One thing I’ve decided to do is profile each book the same day I finish it. So to deliver on that new goal I’ve sat down tonight to write about Robert Sullivan’s Cross Country, which I finished about a half hour ago. (In that time I took the above picture, turned off my MacBook, let it cool, removed the battery for the first time, cleaned the screen with the nifty cloth Apple included in the box, reattached the battery, and prayed I did everything right when I restarted it. I also did a little web browsing, tapping the New York Times’ Books section to see how they format their reviews.)

I bought Cross Country at the Northside Book Market in Iowa City way back in September. My reading habit slowed to a near standstill in the fall, which is why it’s taken me so long to get to it. In an odd twist of events it has become the last book I ever bought from Northside the business, yet it will likely not be my last purchase at Northside the location. While in Iowa City recently, I learned Northside was closing for whatever reason. Coincidentally, The Haunted Bookshop had begun a search for a new home, so the couple who own Haunted bought Northside and are relocating their collection and name to North Linn Street. When I talked to the owner at Haunted about the move she had this to say about Northside’s closing: “Hmmm. Evil plan…” They plan to reopen on January 16, so check them out if you’re in the area.

Cross Country caught my attention because I’ve been meditating on my own cross-country trip. It wasn’t quite cross-country, but my move to California crossed a large portion of the United States. I’m mulling over the idea of a memoir, putting that experience, as well as those of finding work and shelter in Santa Cruz, into book form (or at least into the form of my future MFA dissertation). I won’t go into detail, but I bought Cross Country to do research, to see how others have written about moving and traveling across America.

The book follows the return leg of Sullivan’s latest cross-country trip with his family, from Portland back to New York City. He takes us through the Columbia River Valley in Oregon, the Northern Rockies in Montana, the Great Plains of North Dakota, Wisconsin’s dairy empire, the suburban wasteland of Chicago, the tollway islands in Ohio, and the ancient Appalachians. Interspersed throughout the narration, along with asides about the many other trips Sullivan has taken, are insights regarding Lewis and Clark (mostly while in Oregon, though, following the Corps of Discovery’s return route back to St. Louis), suburb and ruburb growth, the history of American tourism, disposable coffee container lids, the design of gas stations, roadside restaurants, the advent of the hamburger as road food, dams, the local legends of the towns they pass (including Evel Knievel, Woody Guthrie, and Jack Kerouac), local attractions (like the Angel Museum in Beloit, Wisconsin, and the Giant Cross in Groom, Texas), motels and hotels, Holiday Inn, beef jerky…you get the idea. Sullivan expounded on just about every thought provoking aspect of transcontinental travel. It was exactly what the title and back cover promised, making for a very interesting and enlightening read.

One overlying subject was the interstate driving experience. Except for a stretch through the Bitterroot Mountains, Sullivan stuck to the interstates on his way home. Seeing the same fast food restaurants, the same choices at convenient stores, the same hotels, and the same signs at each exit almost drove him and his family over the edge. The conformity and increasing lack of local flavor was a source of frequent criticism, and Sullivan shows that the conventionalization of America, Americans, and our on-road choices developed hand-in-hand with the interstates as they were completed.

Overall I enjoyed Cross Country, but there were a few things that bothered me not only as a reader and writer but also as a perfectionist. Cross Country featured more typos than any other book I have ever read. In other books you may find one or two throughout the entire text, but typos pop up every 15 or 20 pages in Cross Country. It’s sloppy and unprofessional, and Bloomsbury, the publisher, is to blame. Sullivan deserved better.

Speaking of Sullivan, this is the first time I’ve read him. His other books include The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, How Not to Get Rich, and Rats, a book which has always interested me because the cover features the silhouette of a rat superimposed on a map of Manhattan. I’m unsure what his other writing is like, but his style in Cross Country is repetitive in a stream-of-consciousness way that is more annoying than artistic and clever. There are times when he will literally say the same thing three times in a row. Here’s a common example: “A mere twenty-three miles from Billings, we take the exit for Pompey’s Pillar and then the side road to Pompey’s Pillar and then, following signs, drive to the gate for Pompey’s Pillar.” I get it — you went to Pompey’s Pillar.

Another annoyance was Sullivan’s obsession with Holiday Inn Express. For about 200 pages I thought his longing to find and stay at a Holiday Inn Express was a not-so-subtle type of literary product placement. In Miles City, Montana he begrudgingly settles for a Super 8 because the Holiday Inn Express is completely booked, something he broods over until arriving in Beloit, Wisconsin two days later when his family finally stays at a Holiday Inn Express. (My repetition is Sullivan-esque.) After getting his wish, he spends about three pages on the hotel’s revamped breakfast area, a section which even includes a personal drawing of the Express Start® Breakfast Bar complete with labels. I almost skipped the whole thing, but having forced myself to read it saw what he was getting at: another example of American/interstate conformity.

New feature time!

New word I learned: “Ergo,” which is another way of saying “therefore.”

Cross Country was a very enjoyable and enlightening read despite a few annoyances, which I hope are corrected in subsequent printings (that is, if the book has subsequent printings). Those seemingly dull ribbons of concrete and asphalt we use and abuse without thought each day have a unique and intriguing story of their own, one that Sullivan has told quite well.

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