So there’s this book of essays by Michael Ventura, with photos by Butch Hancock, called If I Was a Highway, published by Texas Tech University Press (firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.ttupress.org). It’s a hardcover, 7.5 x 9.5 inches, 236 pages, $30 but you can get it at Amazon for $22.
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Back in the 1980s, while reviewing books for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, I came across Shadow Dancing in the USA by this guy I’d never heard of. I read it enthralled, and gave it a good review which unfortunately didn’t see the light of day for nearly a year, thus doing the publisher no good at all) and from that moment added Michael Ventura to my look-for list. Of course, that was back before the days of internet searches, and Amazon and Alibris and Powell’s online and so forth.
Found, after a while, Letters at 3 a.m., which was a collection of columns. Over time, I have been able to accumulate (except that they keep disappearing, as I press them on worthy friends) his novels: Nighttime Losing Time, The Death of Frank Sinatra, The Zoo Where They Feed You to God. After we became acquainted via email, he kindly sent me, at my request, the manuscripts of his unpublished “One Marilyn Too Many,” (the sequel to The Death of Frank Sinatra), and “A Sweetness of Brick,” which you can download free from http://www.michaelventura.org/ And, in verifying this, I discovered this archive feature that allows you to build your own collection of his columns.
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You know what I think of Ventura, as a thinker, as a writer, as a man who is always, reliably, on the side of the poor. This is a man who pulls things out of the New York Times, compares them to other things from other papers, and what the TV is saying, and what he knows from his own contemporary experience, and from things his friends tell him, and from his own remembrances of things past, and his immense fund of things read, remembered and thought about. Out of that rich compost heap come the strangest flowers, the most enchanting scents, the wildest daydreams….
The man reports!
He lives in the world, first-hand and vicariously, both. To put it as the guys upstairs would put it, he is the ringmaster of a fascinating array of strands with only himself holding them together.
Henry Thoreau said, in Walden, “I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must be a distant land to me.”
That’s what you get with Ventura. He’s sincere, and he’s real, and he brings you accounts from distant lands. You’re not going to agree with everything he says. What good would that do anybody anyway? But you’re going to be moved, intellectually, emotionally.
If I Was a Highway centers not on Ventura’s apparently incessant traveling around the country in his 1969 Chevy, nor on the Chevy itself and his relationship to it (but there is the piece called “The Million Mile Commute”) nor the meaning in the landscapes he passes (“Red State Blues”) nor the driving experience itself (“Raindrops in a Storm”) nor the intersection of literature and culture (his interview with Carolyn Cassady, his remembrances of Carlos Castaneda) nor even his own interactions with the remnants of our history (such as the pieces on the Greyhound Museum, or on Bill Hickok and Deadwood).
The center, finally, is himself, as anyone’s center is always oneself.
We experience the world as out there, but of course it is really a construct, our assemblage from all those clues of what we think the world is. The richer a person’s interior, the richer the world appears to be, which is why bored people are boring, and why Ventura never bores. More than never boring, he brings a reflected richness into his writing that enriches us as we look over his shoulder. You read Ventura, and you find yourself thinking about what he said, and you never look at the world in quite the same way again, which is all to the good.