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Review of Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century


Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century by Andrei Codrescu, Hyperion.

The best humorists harbor a dark core of pure unadulterated venom. Twain and Thurber had it. And so does Andrei Condrescu. In Codrescu’s America, “factories close, people hurt, cities burn,” and one finds “A work-crazed mom trying to raise shopping-mall TV brats in a world gone consumption-mad.” Worse yet, American immigration officials make it tough to enter this Evil Empire: “I fought them for ten years to get my citizenship,” Codrescu complains.

Best known for his witty commentaries on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Codrescu has published a score of poetry collections and fiction over the years. In his recent turn to humorous travel memoirs, Codrescu’s colorful language serves him well. A Hole in the Flag, an account of his return to post-communist Romania, was his last successful outing in this genre.

In Road Scholar, Codrescu takes a cross-country spin to see just what America is all about. The journey takes him from New York to San Francisco, with stops in Santa Fe, New Orleans, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Chicago. Codrescu’s outsider stance allows him to comment wryly if not always coherently on such cultural and social topics as meat-eating, religion, the nature of freedom and democracy, and race relations. Along the way, he also offers brief glimpses of his past life in Romania as the son of a communist bureaucrat. “My father’s big black Packard scared our neighbors...,” he says with an odd note of pride. “In those days, at the height of Stalinist terror, the man in the car was the one who came to take you away.”

Our Americanized man-in-the-car sometimes plays a similar role in condemning his neighbors. His visit to a meat-packing plant in suburban Detroit, for example, is a wondrously gory version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where “huge steel vats brim over with the gurgling innards of freshly snuffed pigs. Intestine skins are blown wide open like the condoms of giants by machines that stuff them full of chopped animal.” This leads Codrescu to contemplate the proletariat who work in the plant, a group of “Polish, Ukrainian, and Romanian butchers” whose presence “wakes an indefinable dread in my Jewish blood.” After all, “among the Eastern Europeans who came to America after the war, one can find a fair number of war criminals,” Codrescu explains matter-of-factly.

And how many Romanian Stalinists?

But on Codrescu drives, ending up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where healers, psychics, astrologers, and other New Agers attract his interest. He rebirths, journeys to a past life, and gets energized by a crystal healer, all of which impresses him, skeptic though he claims to be. “I am not a great fan of the often sanctimonious and overly specialized language with which New Age practitioners lure their legions of the wounded to the fold,” he says, as if their language was the problem. “And yet America has experienced such a loss of soul in the past two decades I think that there is nothing wrong with retrieving a little love for yourself from the toxic pits of the postindustrial age.” Love for himself Codrescu has in abundance.

Humorous, entertaining, often exasperating, Road Scholar provides a windshield view of what passes for culture in America today.

--Thomas Wiloch