Lost in America: A Dead-end Journey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


Lost in America: A Dead-end Journey
by Colby Buzzell

In his new travelogue Lost in America, 30-something San Franciscan Colby Buzzell claims to be 'a mop prodigy': good at wielding a mop.

Big on self-mockery, Buzzell more resembles a literary prodigy.

The loner autodidact who never attended college was praised by books icon Kurt Vonnegut and dubbed 'the voice of a generation' by heavyweight non-fiction writer Robert Kurson for his debut My War: Killing Time in Iraq.

Half a decade on, rocked by his mother's death and son's birth, Buzzell is more unstable than ever. To find himself, the half-Korean combat veteran packs his gear and hops in his battered classic car.

For five months, he drives across America minus map, phone or destination in homage of beat novelist Jack Kerouac's 1957 biographical novel On the Road.

Buzzell heads along Nevada's US 50, which Life magazine described in 1986 as 'the Loneliest Road in America'. Soaked in booze, Buzzell goes through: Cheyenne, Wyoming; Omaha, Nebraska; Salt Lake City, Utah; Des Moines, Iowa; and Detroit, Michigan where he photographs derelict buildings' interiors, before reaching his old haunt, New York. En route, in one scene he drinks two bottles of wine then, failing to find his Detroit hotel room's bed, hits the sofa. His story would be pointless, were it not for the Kerouac riff and the resonance of his plight, which mirrors the demise of the nation.

'Back in the fifties you could get hired in the morning, work a day, quit the next morning, and have another job by noon the next day,' says a Detroit cover-band musician.

Jobs now are hard to get unless you will work for dreadful money. The apparent reason is that America no longer makes anything. The landscape he explores is short on factories and long on encroaching car parks and condominiums.

In a Salt Lake City ghetto, Buzzell gets an ice cream van driver job from a woman 'with a subtle red-state accent', who suggests he visit the Montana town where the Unabomber lived. Whether Buzzell does is unclear. We do learn that, thanks to petrol costs, he sustains an US$8.50 loss.

In Cheyenne the ex-machine gunner fares better doing a demolition job involving felling trees with a chainsaw. He works furiously and has a blast, only to lose the plot one morning.

'I slept through my alarm clock, which meant I didn't show up to work, which meant I lost my job. Which meant I had a drinking problem,' he writes, reminiscent of another, long-dead hard-drinking blue-collar writer, Charles Bukowski.

Buzzell writes with flair anchored in honesty and razor-sharp observation, even seeing meaning in his flannel shirt. 'The buildings we build now are done up pretty much the same way as our clothes, made the cheapest way possible.' His flannel shirt, he notes, was made in 1961, judging by the date printed on the inside tag. Bought in a thrift store for under US$10, 'it's crisp, and the colours are bright, and it looks pretty much exactly the same as it probably did when it was first made half a century ago,' Buzzell writes, then asks if modern clothes will last so long. 'No way.' They fade just after you pluck them from the rack, and disintegrate after the first wash, he writes.

One day, Buzzell adds, his son will say: 'Dad, what's vintage?'

Classic question. Lost in America achieves the unlikely feat of being just as good as Buzzell's debut.