America the Basket Case


In Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck admitted that after cobbling together a book about his drive across the country, even he hadn’t quite captured the essence of the United States. So upon cracking the covers of celebrated Australian author Don Watson’s latest book, American Journeys, it didn’t bode well that his journey (and the book’s introduction) began by proclaiming Kansas City to be, "for all practical purposes", segregated. From the evidence offered, one has to assume Watson’s judgment was made solely because, in the course of less than 24 hours, he met a total of four black people while milling about the celebrated Plaza (an upscale, outdoor shopping mall), checking out the Nelson-Atkins art museum and searching for the Missouri River.

Watson’s intention – stated on his book jacket, and repeated during a book tour which I had occasion to witness in Beaumaris – was to travel as much of America as possible via our antiquated, and often dilapidated, railway system. In doing so, he hoped to mingle with everyday people and gain some insight into the average American, his or her dreams and beliefs. What Watson couldn’t have known, because his trips to America were limited to a few months for each visit, is that the segregation he witnessed in Kansas City was purely economical – which, while not much better, isn’t the same as racial segregation. Kansas City is no more segregated than Melbourne. Like most – but certainly not all – cities and towns in America these days, one’s place in Kansas City society is determined by one’s wealth. To use a somewhat worn-out bit of American street slang: it’s all about the Benjamins.

Fortunately, Watson gets back on track in the first chapter, focusing on city, state and federal government debacles in response to the 2005 hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Plenty of news stories – even a documentary by director Spike Lee – have brought to light the horrors faced by citizens who were abandoned by their government; but Watson’s first hand account gives the recent disaster a necessary immediacy, so that the human face of the whole tragedy isn’t forgotten. Likewise, Watson’s anecdotes involving everyday Americans in the Midwest, along the East and West coasts, and in the Mountain states – rather than elite or the elected of the land – help deliver what travel maven Paul Theroux aptly summed up as the aim of any good travel book: "…[to have]the capacity to express a country’s heart, as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing, and the half-truths in official handouts; as long as it concentrates on people in their landscape, the dissonance as well as the melodies, the contradictions, and the vivid trivia – the fungi on the wet boots."

As a first-time writer of a travel book, Watson has done an admirable job in trying to corral such a huge beast as the United States; and he’s certainly identified quite a few forms of fungus. He even offers up insightful observations about the tenor of American society as the Millennium gets underway. But just when it seems as if Watson is about to actually get a handle on his subject; he writes something like this, at the bottom of page 108: "the absence of cynicism, envy and meanness of spirit takes a bit of getting used to."

Although not your typical American – an Army brat and ex-serviceman, I was raised and lived in various parts of Europe – but as one who has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in the United States (travelling and living in nearly every corner), the idea that most Americans lack envy and cynicism (or even mean spiritedness) is akin to saying most Germans don’t drink beer. From mistaking the Liberty Memorial, the country’s only WWI monument, while outside Kansas City’s Union Station (he refers to it as the "Doric column"), to a mistaken belief that class structures go unrecognised (anyone who attends high school can’t miss it), to apparent time constraints that kept him from learning the same country boasting a Darwin exhibition in New York also allowed many states to dictate that evolution not be taught in public schools, Watson’s reportage on America is, in the end, a bit like the parable about three blind men in a room with an elephant: each one is touching a different part, describing a completely different animal.

Many of Theroux’s critics claim that he is too harsh in his observations of the various peoples in countries he visits. But all good travel writers – from Bruce Chatwin to Graham Greene, Steinbeck and Theroux – know that ample time, a gimlet eye and an unflinching pen are necessary when reporting on a journey. Yes, in his travels by train (and plane and automobile), Watson points out America’s many failings – consumerism, political lobbyists, puritanical attitudes and superstitions, blood-lust, etc – but he too often cushions the blows, something which seems to have stemmed from his affection for and romanticism of America, its legends and its citizens.

Since the neo-conservative and fundamentalist movements dug their claws into upper echelons of power over 20 years ago, willful ignorance and blind faith among the masses has turned the United States into a country headed toward an intellectual and scientific dark age.

Despite Watson’s fondness for my country, and his belief that we always dig ourselves out of every hole we climb into, America is, to borrow the words of Steinbeck (who was writing about the pre-Civil Rights era South), "a troubled place and a people caught in a jam". And no amount of blind faith, beatitudes, bravado or good-hearted words will change that.

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