Drive through American West turns in sobering direction


By Robert Kaplan

Random House

393 pp., $27.50

Americans have been going west to find the dimensions of the future - their own and their country's - for most of the past two centuries. In that grand tradition, Robert Kaplan, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, embarked on a somewhat idiosyncratic tour of the region, roaming from Kansas to California, Mexico to Canada.

In "An Empire Wilderness," his conclusions range from startling to stale. The latter category might include some of Kaplan's observations about suburban sprawl, the decay of downtowns, strip malls, and loss of local culture and texture. Worth noting, but nothing new.

What is new in Kaplan's westward ramble is his synthesis of what he sees on the even broader world canvas and his hard stares into the future.

Kaplan sees, for instance, the triumph of economic determinism over arbitrary political boundaries. Case in point: the border with Mexico. The flow of people and commerce is so inexorable, he suggests, that nothing can stop the virtual amalgamation of much of the Southwest with northern Mexico.

With that flow, of course, comes monumental problems. The Mexican nation surging northward is awash in narcotics money and corruption. That has to be purged, but if it really were, Kaplan hypothesizes, Mexico's pockets might be emptier than ever, and the surge northward toward economic opportunity would only grow.

The United States as magnet is an image underlying much of Kaplan's narrative. Consider this analogy: "Rome's very culture and economic dynamism had attracted the 'barbarians' who toppled it. Would America's effect on Mexicans and other Third World citizens have similar consequences?"

Nothing like invoking Rome for dramatic effect. But Kaplan's intimations of doom are offset, to a degree, by other passages. He chats with Zaheer, an immigrant from Nigeria, ethnically Indian, who's playing the stock market and thinking of buying a small business in Los Angeles.

In Portland, Ore., he finds Jim Ameri, an Iranian immigrant and real estate developer who sums up the difference between his old country and his new one in this way: "Here the poetry is not so beautiful, but people are free to discover the best in themselves; that's why America has happy endings." Reassuring.

But reassurance is a pretty rare commodity with Kaplan. He foresees a transforming devolution of power, with regions becoming more important than formal national entities. Washington's authority will be ever more distant, as new relationships form across state and national borders, driven by the global economy and rapidly changing demography.

Canada will come unglued regardless of Quebec's independence referendums. Places like British Columbia are their own international players already, Kaplan observes.

In the vast US West, he finds beacons of a hopeful future in places ranging from Orange County, Calif. (which, despite its reputation as bastion of conservatism, has evolved a kind of multicultural dynamism) to Portland (a city whose growth-control policies have tamed sprawl) to Calloway, Neb. (a small prairie town hoping to thrive on civic pride and Internet connections). But will the future provide any means of hooking these beacons into an illuminated American whole?

That may be Kaplan's ultimate concern, but he doesn't really try to answer it. In a final flourish of idiosyncrasy, he joins Army officers on an outing to the Civil War battlefield of Vicksburg, Miss., tying the national turning point that occurred there to the turning point facing America today.

This latter-day turning point is vastly more complicated than what Grant pulled off at Vicksburg, shifting the tide of the war and preserving a united country. Today's centrifugal forces are manifest in the dusty, thirsty, economically vital vastness of the West, in Kaplan's view. He shares this view with reportorial mastery, but be warned: You may not be sure exactly what you've seen when you reach the last page.

* Keith Henderson is a Monitor staff writer.

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