From the embaattled newsrooms of small town newspapers to the pornography film sets of the Los Angeles basin, from the check-out lanes of Dollar General to the holy sites of Mormonism, from the nation’s highest peaks to the razed remains of a cherished home, like a latter-day Woody Guthrie, Tom Zoellner takes to the highways and byways of a vast land in search of the soul of its people.
The National Road is a chronicle of Zoellner’s wanderings and wanderlust, what he calls his 'unspecified hunger' to cover the lower 48 states with 'a coat of invisible paint.' It’s also a sneakily ambitious book whose 13 'dispatches' present a sweeping view of the American land and its inhabitants — how each has shaped, and deformed, the other ... Zoellner surveys other manifestations of malaise: the decline of the traditional porn movie industry in 'the other Hollywood,' L.A.’s San Fernando Valley; a St. Louis suburb plagued by racism, redlining and corruption; the Nevada desert, where generations of fortune hunters have sought treasure above and below ground, in casinos and in gold mines, which, when they are stripped bare, leave behind ghost towns marked by toxic piles of tailings. The National Road is by no means an issue book, but it says more about predatory late-capitalism than many works that attack the topic head-on ... Zoellner is a beautiful writer. He’s also a busy one, prone to occasional flights of poetastery ... But these distracting moments of writerly writing are few. Zoellner is a superb reporter and a deep thinker, with a command of the centuries-long back story. He understands how history has been altered by Americans’ quirky religious yearnings and eschatological obsessions. He has his own premonitions of end times.
... a fascinating investigation into American places and themes; metaphors for our country ... Documenting his manic travels risks Zoellner portraying himself as America's Everyman — part cowboy, part Johnny Appleseed. He avoids this fate with insightful and well-crafted prose, along with occasional introspection, including questioning his own arrogance ... Aside from the pleasure of sharing his discoveries from an armchair, readers are offered nuggets of wisdom ... Woody Guthrie could have written the soundtrack to The National Road ... an enthralling journey that proves his point.
If George Packer and John McPhee collaborated on a collection that examined contemporary American life, while simultaneously exhibiting an intense feeling for the country's vast landscape, it might look something like Tom Zoellner's stimulating The National Road ... The National Road's subjects are diverse and unfailingly interesting. No matter how well readers think they may know the United States, it's guaranteed there will be something here to surprise, delight or unsettle them.