Saturday, May 03, 2008

Mini-Review: "All That Road GOING" by A.G. Mojtabal

This is the first book I have read by Grace Majtabal. It will not be the last. Using the prosaic setting of a cross-country bus trip aboard a Greyhound, she populated her novel with a cast of unforgettable ordinary people. Having trekked across the U.S. by Greyhound myself, I recognized these characters – both as archetypes and as real individuals. Jim Collins, in his classic study of outstanding businesses, arrived at the conclusion: “The most important thing in building a great company is to put the right people on the bus.” The same can be said for building a great novel. And the author has done just that; she has put the right people on her mythical bus.

The simple road story is told through a chorus of voices – passengers and driver being given turns at narrating legs of the journey from their own unique vantage points. This conceit gives the narrative a bit of a “Rashomon” feel to it, and adds to the book’s impact. In the course of offering an “on the road” tale, the author implicitly comments upon a variety of social issues: hospice care, fragile marriages, the plight of the homeless, aging in America, class differences, police brutality, teen pregnancy, religious hypocrisy, clinical depression and the daily existence of those who live lives of quiet desperation.

Here is an excerpt from late in the book that serves as a good example of Mojtabai’s writing style, and as a glimpse at the nature of the ad hoc community thrown together by the accident of sharing the same destination:

“There must have been some announcement over the loudspeaker, the voice too fuzzed with static for him to follow. At the far corner of his vision, Pierson spotted his seatmate heading unsteadily toward him, gesturing. In no time, the man was in his face, and the first thing he said to Pierson was, ‘Would you please help me up the steps?’

‘Steps?’ Pierson echoed. The man was waiting, his arm already held out to him.

‘I’ll need a helping hand,’ he said.

Pierson reddened. Why me? His arm stiffened in protest. But it was useless – before he knew it, the blind man’s arm was linked through his, they were latched, pressed together, Another book . . .

Pierson could feel it, through their tensed arms, how the man was quaking.

The three steps, which had worried Pierson’s seatmate, turned out to be four. Someone had fetched a portable step – it looked like a crate turned upside down – to ease the first giant step up. Nobody had thought of such a thing before this; it was kind of late in the game by now, and besides, a couple of passengers, not expecting or noticing the extra step, had almost landed on their faces. It was more of a nuisance than anything. Trying to sweeten up the customers, Pierson figured, the company hoping to stave off any complaints or lawsuits that might be coming their way.

This booster step was no help at all to Pierson’s seatmate; he’s been counting on three steps and balked, mistrustful, refusing to budge after the third. The stairs were too narrow for more than a single person at a time to manage without a squeeze, so Pierson, standing on the step below, extricated his arm, handing the blind man on for the passenger at the head of the stairs to deal with this compounded the confusion.

They resettled in silence. An awkward, almost suffocating silence. ‘It’s been too much,’ Pierson started, his voice breaking in of its own accord but barely above a whisper.

His seatmate gave no sign that he had heard.

‘My wife, see . . . ran out . . . ‘

‘That old story,’ the blind man was quick to reply. He was busy fumbling for the lever under the armrest. Sighing, he inclined his seat as far back as it would go.

‘No,’ said Pierson. ‘No, it’s not what you think. I mean . . .’ He couldn’t say what he meant.

‘Not now,’ his seatmate said gently, shutting his eyes. ‘It’s much too late.’” (Pages 185-6)

One brief, final excerpt summarizes for me the book and the plight of its characters/passengers/fellow travelers, told through the voice of the long-suffering bus driver:

“ . . . The miles ticked by. Same thoughts going round – just another day at the office, a little more eventful, more stressful than average, just another trip down the pike – trying to convince myself that a time would come when this trip would merge with all the others, though I knew it never would. I’d be shuffling those cards, hoping to deal them out different, for a long time to come. As the weeks wore on, sure, I’d obsess over it less. Distraction is guaranteed in my line of work, I could count on some fading. For the drift is ceaseless, unresting – and senseless (as it struck me that hour) since nothing is ever settled, nothing changed., But, east to west and west to east, I ferry them – people leaving home or going back, fleeing the home that never was, seeking the home that never would be, setting out to find or lose themselves, they’d arrive, depart, be quit of. . . Another boarding call and they’d leave, return, set forth again, dreaming out, something always beckoning up the road, around the bend, elsewhere. Always elsewhere. (Pages 194-5)

The title of the book comes from a line in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” This particular road trip evoked memories of a Greyhound bus trek I made in the summer of 1973. The author’s eye for detail helped me to recall the menagerie of passengers who populated the AmeriCruiser so many years and so many miles ago. She brought back to the front burner of my memory the sights, sounds, smells and stops along the way of that long ago odyssey – and all the journeys that I have undertaken since. That is an indication of good writing. She is a novelist worthy of attention.


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