A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland
The American Dream
Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers
Book Review by Adam McKibbin
Two writers hit the road in search of the real America
Americans are confused by Americans. Equal rights activists watch the Prop 8 returns and wonder "Who are these people?" Midwestern mothers see an old man in a bathrobe surrounded by giggling young blonde "girlfriends" as a cheering public looks on and wonder "Who are these people?" People in the North joke about the South needing to secede. So do people in the South.
With a pioneering spirit in their hearts, Rose Aguilar and Harmon Leon headed out into America to explore the unknown. For Aguilar, it was a chance to peek behind the red curtain - supposedly enemy territory for a liberal journalist from San Francisco - and ask "Why do you believe in the things you believe?" For Leon, it was a chance to examine the American Dream that everyone keeps yammering about. Does the "American" in "American Dream" have any bearing anymore? He'd go to some extraordinary lengths to find out.
Red Highways stems from a blog that Aguilar was keeping from the road; she was interviewed at the time by The Red Alert and sounded deeply affected by all of her interactions out on the road. The motivation was simple: follwing the 2004 election, she couldn't figure out how anyone could have voted for George W. Bush - and, living in San Francisco, she was feeling somewhat insulated. So she bought a cheap ride, coaxed her outspoken boyfriend into coming along for the ride (he didn't need much prodding) and ventured out into the reddest of the red states.
The effect of her findings may depend on the insularity of the individual reader. For anyone who doesn't have a single friend, Facebook or othewise, who voted for Bush or McCain - and you know you're out there - Red Highways will surely dispel a few myths about the other side of the aisle. There are vegan Republicans and pro-choice Republicans, even in the unlikeliest of places. For those of us who lean far left but are well acquainted with the right in our personal lives, the interviews are interesting but not as illuminating; for the most part, the interviewees are no more or less qualified than your own family and friends to be talking about the issues of the day.
That's precisely Aguilar's point, of course - to get beyond the hype, to cut through the carefully composed sheen of media-ready commentators. And yet the notion that the people interviewed in Red Highways are Real People - and it's a notion that is reinforced - still implies that the Mother Jones-reading bartender/actor in West Hollywood is something other than that. To hear the author's desire to flee California and reach "average, everyday voters and nonvoters" leaves a funny taste in the post-Palin world. Some of these plain Janes and Joe Six-Packs don't come off very well, but, then, how well would the average staunch liberal come across if grilled on political facts and beliefs in a Pottery Barn parking lot?
Aguilar's great gift is that she puts people at ease and gets them to open up in a way that's unusual in political reporting - and then, to repay them for their openness, she gives them plenty of airtime. This is not a book of sound bites. If anything, she disregards the need for much of a story arc, instead mostly just threading the accounts together.
The most inspiring passages come when she discovers people who are streaming against the stream, such as when she finds a progressive church in Texas that draws Republicans despite its unapologetically liberal message. Why? Because it's a cool and accepting place to be. The worthy takeaway message from Red Highways is one that should be obvious, but one that's easy to forget: if you find yourself in a bubble, don't be afraid to break out. It's ugly out there sometimes, but it's probably not as bad as you imagine.
While Aguilar plays the fly on the wall in the red states, Harmon Leon flies off the wall in The American Dream. The humorist and gonzo journalist throws himself headlong into the American dreams of others - and as the subtitle indicates, it's quite a cross-section of the country that he experiences.
Leon wisely starts with a couple of his best stories, hooking the reader first with a fascinating look at a tourist attraction in the wilds beyond Mexico City: a simulation of a border crossing, complete with fake cops, fake sirens, and fake gunshots. To add an extra surreal layer, a camera crew from Fox happens to be there as well there, supposedly trying to figure out whether the simulation is being used as a training ground for real border crossers. The experience turns out to be exhilarating - and then occasionally terrifying. While a lot of writers would have considered this plenty of legwork for an interesting piece (or chapter), Leon sets the tone for the book by going all out, continuing to pursue his immigrant American dream by obtaining fake citizenship and eventually getting a job in the fields.
He writes in an engaging style that, combined with the multitude of curious worlds he enters, makes The American Dream a breezy read. Sometimes he pushes a little too hard for a joke, like in his chapter on Blind Date, which is really more about how craaazy Harmon Leon acts on TV than any sort of insightful glimpse into the vacuous world of reality television (it also is the account with the loosest connection to the American Dream - and comes after he's already spent enough time on celebrity and entertainment).
Beneath the enjoyable zaniness of overprotective celebrity impersonators and hilariously daft Hollywood execs, there's some real insight to be gained about the dreaming Americans that he encounters. Many readers probably won't come in with a good understanding of what life is like on a pot farm or carny camp - but they will certainly leave with some idea.
Leon clearly thinks that a lot of these people are crazy, and he's even scared of a few of them, but he spares them the vitriol of, say, a Matt Taibbi. His gonzo mission only falters when he gets to a swingers party, another chapter he probably should have just cut (judging on the sidelines not really keeping with the spirit of the book). He even allows the constituents of the despicable God Hates Fags church in Topeka to have a few human moments - except for maniacal leader Fred Phelps, who shows up at the end like a bad horror movie villain and understandably chills Leon's blood. Sometimes wacky America isn't a laughing matter.
Rose Aguilar - Interview
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Ani DiFranco - Interview
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