Crisscrossing the Nation on Highways Huge and Small
Zöllner examines other manifestations of malaise: the decline of the traditional porn film industry in “the other Hollywood,” LA’s San Fernando Valley; a St. Louis suburb plagued by racism, redlining, and corruption; The Nevada desert, where generations of fortune hunters have hunted for treasure above and below ground, in casinos and in gold mines which, when uncovered, leave ghost towns marked by poisonous piles of debris. “The National Road” is by no means a theme book, but it says more about predatory late capitalism than many works that attack the subject directly. The book’s title essay refers to the first federal government-built highway that stretched west from Cumberland, Md. Zöllner, to Joliet, Illinois. He follows the old street and finds it lined with Dollar General Stores, the “Little Box” discount. Franchise that serves impoverished rural communities and – as suggested by customs officers – exploits them. It’s dark stuff, but Zöllner knows that even the bottom end of the American retail market has a colorful pull. While strolling through the corridors of a dollar general, he remarks: “It’s like walking into a colorful explosion of confetti from brand manufacturers: packets of Crayola, Viva paper towels, Dixie cups, gain detergents, Energizer batteries, Fructis- Shampoo.”
Zöllner is a beautiful writer. He is also busy and tends to occasional flights to the poetastery. (“The moon was summer fat that night.”) In an essay on “Peakbagging,” Zöllner’s quest to climb to the highest places in all 50 states, you can feel that the author cleared his thesaurus to begin typing the word “Mountain”: “gentle pimple farmland”, “big swell grassland”, “proud quartz wedge”, “noble wintry dome”.
But those distracting moments of literary writing are few. Zöllner is an excellent reporter and deep thinker who has mastered centuries of backstory. He understands how history has been changed by the bizarre religious desires and eschatological obsessions of Americans. He has his own premonitions of the end times. A chapter on King Philip’s War, the bloody conflict between indigenous tribes and colonists of New England in the late 17th century, culminates in a vision of the ecological apocalypse: tax collector stands on the shores of Cape Cod, the ancestral territory of the Wampanoag, imagining the rising Seas over the earth. The Europeans who came to this continent devastated the countryside, disrupted ecosystems and agricultural practices, waged war on indigenous peoples and devastated them with disease. Now, according to Zoellner, the history of a settler-colonialist nation could be doubled: an even more terrifying intruder rears up on the coast and threatens to invade the waters that brought the pilgrims to Cape Cod in 1620.
This is not the only place The National Road is causing climate change. In the most lighthearted chapter of the book on Zöllner’s addiction to off-road driving, he speaks of guiltily pumping gasoline into his car, knowing that “this savory vegetative remnant of the prehistoric world” will contribute to carbon emissions. Nevertheless, he continues to fill the tank and eats his own fuel, the energy source that drives his marathons – gas station coffee, “heavy sugar, heavy brightener”. “The urge to drive can also be an extension of Eros, the life force,” writes Zöllner. “And so I think my urge to demolish courthouses is touching the pages of civic memorials … a weird way of trying to put as much Americana as possible into the manuscript of memory.” The splendor and depravity of the nation can be incompatible; its secrets can be unsolvable. But for tax collectors and other troubled travelers, there is still so much America out there if you point your wheels in the right direction towards the shrinking horizon.