Travelling for answers

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 05, 2010 18:40 hrs

Avirook Sen went on the road in America during Barack Obama’s election year.

What’s your road, man? — holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.

So wrote Jack Kerouac in his seminal autobiographical road-trip novel, On the Road. In it, the thinly disguised protagonists — friends of Kerouac’s in real life — charted a frenzied, drug-fuelled course across America, becoming instant icons for the Beat generation.

Avirook Sen, a prominent Indian writer-journalist, took a similar journey across America at an equally iconic time — the year of the election of Barack Obama. The result of that journey is Looking for America, Sen’s debut novel chronicling his four-month traipse through the United States at a pivotal time in its history.

The book is littered with stories and anecdotes from the people that colour his journey. From the misfortune of Chicago’s Grant Achatz — a celebrated chef who lost his ability to taste because of cancer, to the humorously bigoted Karen Black ("Mrs Black to you") in Dayton, Tennessee, Sen’s anecdotes are poignant and heartfelt.

Fused with the people Sen meets is the unending stream of American trivia scattered through the book. From references to Greyhound buses, Michael Jackson, beauty pageants, civil rights history, Bill O’Reilly and the Ku Klux Klan — the book cements in itself the fabric of what makes America the creature it is today.

A much-discussed topic through the book are the varying attitudes to Barack Obama and his election campaign of hope and change. Coleman Smith from the town of Montgomery summed it up by saying that he was following this campaign more closely than any other in 63 years, because of Obama’s race. Through the book, Sen meets Americans from both sides of the Democratic-Republican political divide who, regardless of which side they are on, are engaged and excited by the election.

Sen explains his motivations for the journey and the resulting book as the need to satisfy his personal curiosity about America, rather than providing a comprehensive understanding of the country.

Yet somehow you put the book down with the feeling that you’ve been left hanging. While Sen is undoubtedly witty, his need to pull a story out of the most trivial instances sometimes feels forced. His experiences though his journey, while varied, do not leave you with a sense of accomplishment or learning. It seems that while he was busy looking for America, he forgot to extrapolate lessons along the way.

The novel is lacking in the urgency that drives the best books in the genre: On the Road by Kerouac and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thomson.

Given the timing of his journey and the epic nature of the political and social landscape with which he was surrounded, Sen could have made his road a much more vibrant and exciting one.

Author: Avirook Sen
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: xiv + 282
Price: Rs 299

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