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William Least Heat-Moon: My Own Kerouac

With all respect to those who loved him, I couldn’t find anything to hold onto in the works of Jack Kerouac. Perhaps it was because I dipped into On the Road after I’d read Blue Highways and expected Kerouac to write like William Least Heat-Moon.

I realized that I just wanted to read more Blue Highways.

Over the decades, as people seem to be reading less and less, Heat-Moon’s books have become longer and longer. He spends over six hundred packed pages discussing the land of Chase County, Kansas. Five hundred recounting crossing the United States by boat. Yes, it can be done. Over four thousand miles by water and less than one hundred by land.

His books seem to be written from the voice of his own needs. Even the asides, which some might think are intended to illuminate and educate, are delivered with the distant stare of the chap at the bar who’s had one too many, telling a tale to hear his own voice. Fortunately, it is a tale worth hearing. And so, we listen.

The episodic and then this happened and then that happened is the death knell of many personal accounts. Even if things really did happen, and in that order, they don’t become interesting by being written down. When we know why they happened, when we see what might have been, when we hear lost voices, smell the smells, those words are worth reading. The primary task of a novel is to deliver vicarious experience. Heat-Moon delivers the same in his nonfiction accounts.

Another author once remarked to me that Heat-Moon wasn’t a real adventurer. During his water voyage across the country, instead of sleeping on the ground or on his boat, he stayed in nice hotels when possible and ate in restaurants. They said that’s not roughing it. That’s not adventure.

I pointed out that he never claimed to be roughing it, although certainly anyone who has read the book knows how rough it sometimes was. He tells us about the hotels, the restaurants, the bars. He makes no bones about his efforts to make the voyage as simple and enjoyable as possible. His goal was not suffering for the sake of art. His goal was to cross from New York to Oregon in a boat (well, three of them, for various conditions).

He did it. That’s an adventure.

Vicarious experience. It’s one of the two reasons I bother to read anything. William Least Heat-Moon delivers magnificently.

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