by Kent Nerburn
Reviewed by Sam Pelletier
The cross-country road trip may as well be its own genre in American literature. Time and time again, countless men and women have felt the allure of finding America’s heart and soul on its back roads and in its small towns. Such fascination with the unknown has sent many writers onto the open road in search of meaning and answers.
Kent Nerburn’s Road Angels takes us on such a quest, as the author travels the Pacific Coast in an attempt to alleviate his restless desire for spiritual understanding. The Minnesota writer, who as a young man traveled the same route as an itinerant vagabond, decides on a whim that rural family life in the Midwest has made his lifelong desire for spiritual belonging stagnant. So, we set off riding shotgun, as Nerburn tries to reignite his passions and make certain that the life he has chosen is one of fulfillment.
Road Angels stands out in the world of “road trip memoirs” because its author is neither young and free nor old and bored, but rather, like many of us, facing middle age with a career and a family. Yet, here was no mid-life crisis or other catalyst for the excursion. Nerburn makes this clear as he opens the book: “Sometimes big events have small origins. There was no divorce, no loss of job, no dramatic crisis of faith and self-confidence.” Nerburn explains that he simply needs a change of scenery and some time to reflect- an order that only the automobile could fulfill.
The road trip Nerburn embarks on is not marked by great adventures and outrageous anecdotes. Instead, the reader witnesses the inner reflections of a cultural observer and spiritual enthusiast. This trip is not about new experiences but about reflecting on the past and making sense of the future. Nerburn proves to be a great storyteller, as his introspective style significantly makes up for the lack of action on his trip.
But, style without substance does not make a compelling read. The substance here is not in the form of page-turning suspense but in warm humor and sage advice. However, without the classic sense of adventure that one expects from a road journal, Road Angels can be tedious at times. Nerburn’s overstated descriptions can be tough to swallow. Sentences like “Autumn’s tawny days had stretched like a lazy house cat across the landscape…“ or “A smoky indolence had hung in the air, and every day had felt like fine wine..” might leave some readers scratching their heads.
Ultimately, Nerburn uses the travel memoir as a platform for his own spiritual discovery and, along the way, offers some insightful wisdom and a hopeful message to the reader. The nature of his quest might not resonate with folks who haven’t had similar spiritual yearnings, and the book skips out on the freewheeling adventure that has come to define the genre. However, Road Angels delivers as a feel-good travelogue sprinkled with life lessons and a positive message about finding the true meaning of home.
Nerburn’s greatest success here is his study of our relationship with the road. He illustrates poetically that, as a country of motorists and dreamers, there is much more to discover on the American road than vast new lands. It’s that newfound sense of inner peace and understanding that only rambling down an unknown road with an unknown destination can bring out. Kent Nerburn’s Road Angels is a testament to the American automotive wanderlust and its power to rejuvenate and revive any spirit.
(San Francisco: Harper, 6/1/2002).
ISBN: 0060698691. $24.00. 336pp