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Fredly’s Australia 001: One For The Road by Tony Horwitz

July 14, 2014

(One of the many books I’ve been reading for my post testicular cancer vow to see Australia.)

 

In One For The Road by Tony Horwitz, a journalist takes a break from his newspaper job to hitchhike through the Outback in the summer (or is he on assignment?), and travels on the peripheral edge of Australia. Horwitz talks about Kerouac, but his journey differs from Kerouac’s. It lacks many things: vision, cohesive build, a passion and affection for others and a lack of commitment for presence in the moment. Horwitz turns people around like stones to see the light go through them see their perceptions and character flaws, he doesn’t apply this critical template to himself into any form of growth, or provide a deeper insight into Australia.

There are some interesting sections, but most of the time, he’s highly dismissive of the towns he passes through, checking them off his list as he goes through them.But hey, there are definite passages that give you some information on the various towns, such as the opal miners in Coober Pedy knocking around the west coast of Australia, Nullabor desert, Broome, buying booze for aborigines in a dry territory, lobster fishing North of Perth. And some facts on various historical figures and landmarks, which I feel have been done better by Bill Bryson in Sunburnt Country. It does give you a hook into the area, but it’s barbed.

There are early GPS warnings of intellectual distance a borderline condescension (actually complete condescension):

“Paul Theroux said that conversing with strangers is a peculiarly American compulsion: ‘To get an American talking it is only necessary to be within shouting distance and wearing a smile. Your slightest encouragement is enough to provoke a nonstop rehearsal of the most intimate details of your fellow traveler’s life.’”

He compulsively suture literary quotes to describe what they can’t or use vocabulary words to the vernacular that would emotionally capture the moment or the person. Example “Ayers reminiscent perhaps of Shelley’s ode to Ozymandias.” When it doubt, Sir Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism retreats into classicism.

 

Some highlights that made the book more enjoyable for me:

  • Sidewalks are “footpaths.”

 

  • In 1699, William Dampier was the first white man to record seeing a kangaroo: The land aninmals were only a sort of raccoon have very short forelegs but go jumping upon them as the others do, and, like them, are very good meat.”

 

  • A quote from a gambler/loser he meets along the way: “Anyone can have a home and an honest job. But if a man lives by his wits, he can get by without all that. And stay free as a bird like me.”

 

  • Eskimos have twelve words for snow, which explains why Australians have so many words for emptiness.

 

  • And surprise, itinerant workers who drink away their paychecks, have no future, and drift from job to job and town to town, and aren’t well educated, hate blacks (“abbos”) and think aborigines are being given a free ride. “You probably don’t know why blacks are called bongs, Bong! That’s the sound they make when the bounce off the ‘roo bar. (The kangaroo bar is the metal guard on the front of a truck.).

 

 

At the end, Horwitz stitches his finish together lyrics from a Talking Heads tune, Once In A Lifetime. I wanted to sing, “You may find yourself Reading a book about Australia that makes some points but goes nowhere and has a bad ending.”

There’s information geography and some sociology to glean from One For The Road. Kerouac offered the road as the fulfillment of a dream’s promise. It’s not here. But once travels for an emotional an affection for people along the way. The book is an exercise, and in the prose you can see he’s striving to be Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, but the Horwitz stays embedded in his journalism and can’t pulsate prose to spark the fire of those writers. Horwitz doesn’t become anyone different than the person who started the journey (Unless you count that next time he travels he’s going to take his wife to be “restless together.’ Spare me!) He seems to congeal him instead of expand like Australia, however, he kept the emptiness in his heart and a desire to remain the marsupial pouch of its lower southeastern corner of his domestic life and a career ending finish in Martha’s Vineyard. A real mold breaker!

If you truly travel, you can’t maintain your distance from who you are, Horwitz truly never left home. I hitchhiked through his book, turned the pages with my thumb, but One For The Road didn’t have the heart to turn, stop and pick me up.

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