Looking for America
‘Everyone’s seeking change. Know what um sayin’?” writes Avirook Sen early in Looking for America. This sly bit of wordplay creates a link between a wheelchair-bound man begging with a coffee cup on a Chicago street corner and Barack Obama’s PR machinery inviting donations for the 2008 election campaign. The line is a mood-setter too: this book is about the author’s road-trip across the US in an attempt to get to know a country struggling with recession, with the repercussions of the war in Iraq and with the burden of history as it moves towards a date with its first black president. It’s a time when America too is “seeking change”.
Parts of Looking for America should be an eye-opener for the Indian reader whose impressions of the US have come primarily from mainstream Hollywood movies — the ones that present ‘America’ as a sum of the lives of beautiful people in the metropolises. Sen spends time in states and towns that you might only be dimly aware of, and his journeys in Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains provide a window to the more quotidian aspects of the country. Among the places he travels to are Gary, Indiana (now a derelict town but historically significant for electing the country’s first black mayor); Stone Mountain, Georgia (once a hub for the Ku Klux Klan but now a place where a white man, a former drug mule, asserts “I’m for Barack”); Dinosaur, Colorado, where he learns that a chunk of the state’s votes will be determined by who’s the better president for hunters; and the house of Joe the Plumber in Toledo, Ohio. Along the way there are chance encounters and strange visions, such as a glimpse of a lone camel on a green Texan ranch.
Those of us who are fed stereotypes about western permissiveness tend to lose sight of what a conservative place the US is in many ways — not least in religious matters. In this context, Sen’s visit to Dayton, Tennessee — where the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial, pitting evolution against Biblical creation, took place in 1925 — is very revealing, as is his experience at a church service in Alabama. I thought I knew a bit about the Scopes Trial, but it was only through this book that I learnt it took place in Dayton mainly because a waning coal company wanted to cash in on the publicity, and that even the arrest of the schoolteacher John T Scopes was carefully staged.
On the other hand, most of my knowledge on the trial comes from the classic film Inherit the Wind, and there’s something comforting about the fact that Sen himself uses pop culture as reference points (a young black truck driver reminds him of “Bubba” in Forrest Gump; in Fargo he discovers that no one says “Yaah” the way they do in the Coen Brothers film). This adds to the sense that the book is written not from a position of remote authority but by someone who is finding his own way around, picking up things as he goes along.
Which also means that Looking for America has a certain randomness about it — an occupational hazard for any narrative non-fiction endeavour of this sort. More than a unified whole, it’s a collection of vignettes — some very interesting, others less so — and there are inevitable hits and misses. (Some bits — a report of an odd, Samuel Beckett-like conversation between two people sitting behind Sen in a bus, for instance — feel like they could have been pared away.) But the free-flowing format mostly works, given that the author’s intention wasn’t to present a single proposition and stick doggedly with it.
Eventually it’s the little things that make this book come together, such as the engaging pen portraits: an elderly woman whose rhetoric suggests that she might have ghostwritten Bush’s speeches, a harried coach attendant ineffectually hitting on two passengers, a born-again Republican who turned anti-abortionist because she herself couldn’t have a baby at age 30 and it seemed so wrong to see 17-year-old girls wasting their opportunities! Or that man in the wheelchair who says “Anything’s possible, know what um sayin’?” It could be the catchphrase for the book and for the transitional period it sheds light on.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.