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Book Review

An exile back on Main Street

Sean O'hagan

The title of Timothy O'Grady's road book is taken from Walt Whitman's poem, 'For You, O Democracy', which was written in the middle of the 19th century and employs biblical cadences to posit a kind of utopian -- and proto-socialist -- vision of America the magnificent.

'Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.'

Some 150 years after those lines were written, they read like a kind of enraptured wishful thinking. As O'Grady notes in his introduction, the democratic ideal on which America was founded, and which several distinguished Europeans, including Dickens and de Tocqueville, marvelled at, has all but crumbled. America, in the twilight of the Bush era, seems in retreat of its own elevated idea of itself, its seemingly divine magnetism. Should Barack Obama triumph, he will carry the weight of that lost legacy. It is difficult to see how he, or anyone, could rekindle it.

Divine Magnetic Lands, then, is a timely book, an attempt to take the temperature of contemporary America by travelling across it and back. It is not a new idea, the American road trip having engendered at least three late 20th-century classics: Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Robert Frank's seminal book of photographs, The Americans, and Hunter S Thompson's early Seventies ode to excess and disenchantment, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The America that Timothy O'Grady uncovers seems closer in many ways to the one portrayed by Robert Frank in the late Fifties. Back then, Frank's grainy, downbeat images shocked and dismayed many mainstream American critics, who seemed reluctant to admit that this other America -- poor, disenfranchised, discontented -- even existed. O'Grady uncovers an even more riven country than Frank would recognise, a place where a kind of collective stoicism, tinged with confused and inchoate anger, is the norm.

Frank was an outsider who came to America to escape the dull normality of his native Switzerland; O'Grady is an American of Irish descent, who was born and raised in Chicago, but has been living in self-chosen exile in Europe for the past 30 years. In many ways, you sense, he is looking for vestiges of the America he grew up in. 'My American life,' he writes, 'coincides with perhaps the most prosperous, optimistic and idealistic period in the history of the country. The energy was high, the vistas vast and the sense of possibility seemingly without limit... then came a darkening.'

O'Grady left for Europe in 1973, the year that Watergate became a byword for presidential corruption and America began to try and come to terms with the fact that it was losing a faraway war against a tiny country. He returned to begin his road trip when America was limbering up for another misguided military adventure abroad. The invasion of Iraq occurred between the two epic jaunts he made, 'the first from New York to San Francisco through the north, the second eight months later from San Francisco back to New York through the south'.

Throughout this book, which takes the form of a discursive travelogue punctuated by social reportage, personal reminiscence and accounts of meetings with colourful characters in bars, there is an undertow of unease and often angry pessimism. What O'Grady encounters in town after town is the sense of a country in crisis, bewildered by the sorry state in which it now finds itself.

But against all that, this is an entertaining and illuminating travel book, one that often hums with the intensity of O'Grady's love for, and exasperation with, his country. He is humbled, like Kerouac, by the vastness and variety of the American landscape, and some of the best writing here describes the millions of acres of wilderness that still belong to the Navajo and the Sioux as well as the woodlands of Montana that are now home to survivalists armed against the coming Armageddon.

For all its uncertainty about itself, America, as O'Grady experienced it, remains a place where small acts of generosity abound and where genuine curiosity is an antidote to European hauteur. He finds companionship of the Whitmanesque kind in the most unexpected, often potentially threatening places and concludes, to his surprise, that bars in college towns, where the clientele tends to be well-educated and politically progressive, are the least friendly places for a lone traveller to idle away an evening.

Like the late W. G. Sebald, O'Grady slips in and out of the personal while grappling with notions of collective memory and forgetting all the surprises that America can throw at even the most seasoned traveller. Did you know, for instance, that Oscar Wilde had a tin mine -- 'the Oscar' -- named after him in Leadville, which he officially opened by wielding a silver drill? Or that Hibbing, where Bob Dylan was raised, is known locally as 'the Town That Moved', having been transported, building by building, two miles up the road when iron ore was discovered underneath the original site in 1919?

As the narrative progresses, you realise that O'Grady is exploring not just America's identity, but his own -- the Americanness that his long exile has, if anything, made him more aware of. Divine Magnetic Lands, like the road that engendered it, operates on many levels, one of which is the profoundly personal. It traces Timothy O'Grady's attempt to find out not just where he comes from, but if he can still belong there. That that question remains unanswered by the end of the book speaks volumes about his homeland.

This article was first published in the Observer on July 27, 2008

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