William Least Heat Moon’s Long and Winding “Roads”

William Least Heat-Moon: Roads To QuozWilliam Least Heat-Moon’s Roads to Quoz is subtitled “An American Mosey.” While that’s appropriate enough, it’s equally applicable to his previous offerings, Blue Highways, PrairyErth, and River Horse. And therein lies, or doesn’t lie, the problem, depending on your particular take on the author’s meanderings, and his equally peripatetic prose.

Because of that, this isn’t the kind of book that’ll have Scott Turow calling it a “Gripping page-turner!” on the dust jacket. Most books are concerned with getting you somewhere. Fiction relies on its narrative tricks and tropes to create the sense of pacing and urgency that the author hopes will lead to his book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; memoir attempts to tidily tie together its subject’s life with a cohesiveness it didn’t have when it happened the first time, sometimes for a didactic purpose, but generally because this will lead to her book being optioned by a Hollywood studio; and nonfiction concerns itself as much, it seems, with settling scores as with accuracy. What’s left tends to be more inductive than deductive or (God forbid) discursive.

But then, I’ll admit from the beginning that I’m biased.

Here’s the thing: Heat-Moon presents me with a bit of a chicken/egg dilemma, since I received Blue Highways as a gift at around the same time I started to write. I’m not sure, therefore, if I liked his writing since mine was already prone to digression, or if what I found in those pages just happened to validate that it was okay to write as though the destination didn’t matter. The journey, and what transpires, is the thread that runs through all of Heat-Moon’s writing.

If you had to say that Quoz is “about” something, then it’s about a series of roadtrips. Really, though, it’s not about much of anything, which frees it to be about pretty much everything. It’s a series of journeys, one of which traces the now-forgotten Dunbar-Hunter Expedition, which took place contemporaneously with that of Lewis and Clark. However, it also takes its author, and various companions, along other forgotten stretches of the country, with the author uncovering all sorts of history–both on a grand, and more personal, scale–along the way. And, as with his previous books, the memorable bits say less about the author than about those he encounters along the way. It’s a rare talent–reminiscent of Studs Terkel–when an author has the good sense to get out of the way and let someone else tell the story.

The book’s only tiresome aspect–to this reader, at least–was an overreliance on quoz; not the phenomenon, but on the word itself. It’s as though a musician likes a certain figure so much that instead of using it as a motif, he bases an entire symphony on it. If, as the author asserts, quoz pops up in the unlikeliest places, in this book it comes with an almost metronomic regularity, ’til it goes from unlikely to predictable to being a minor annoyance.

But only a minor one.  Heat-Moon’s writing makes for great reading if you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere in particular because his books–from the justifiably famous Blue Highways to the mosey that is Roads to Quoz–are content to meander, and if you approach them in the same wandering spirit, you’ll likely find them enjoyable.

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