ROADS: DRIVING AMERICA'S GREAT HIGHWAYS By Larry McMurtry Simon & Schuster 206 pages; $25
Nobody can accuse author Larry McMurtry of being an underachiever. In a career that spans four decades, he has written more than 20 novels, several volumes of essays, and many screenplays. Somehow, he has also found time to establish himself as one of the country's premier antiquarian booksellers.
"Roads: Driving America's Great Highways" marks McMurtry's first foray into travel writing. With mixed results, he recounts a series of short car trips he made in 1999, crisscrossing America. Having spent much of his life driving the country, he revisits his favorite roads the same way he rereads a favorite novel - that is, selectively, ignoring stretches he doesn't like and allowing plenty of opportunity for whim.
McMurtry's goals are modest, and he wisely establishes this early on, preparing the reader for a decidedly low-key, if high-speed, tour of the country. McMurtry's trip - or series of minitrips - is short, comfortable, and almost entirely devoid of risk. Not for him the blue highways of William Least Heat-Moon. His routes of choice are the Interstates, where a driver can cross vast expanses of land quickly and with little risk of inconvenience, let alone adventure.
Most readers can appreciate the thrill of simply jumping in the car and hitting the road, with a loose itinerary and little purpose. Surprisingly, "Roads" is not a very invigorating book. McMurtry's first trip sets the pattern for most of what follows. The author takes a few days off from his busy life selling books in Texas, flies to Duluth, Minn., rents a car, and makes the 1,100-mile trip via Interstate 35 back to Archer City in about a day and a half.
His trip is not so much an experience in itself as an aide mmoire, the view out the windshield providing him a jumping-off point for a miscellany of reminiscences, historical anecdotes, thoughts, and observations about the areas he drives through.
By the end of the year, he has crossed every region of the country - "from border to border and beach to beach" - in a similar manner.
Some of his musings are of interest, particularly when he discusses writers of the regions he passes through. He has a great deal to say about Hemingway as he drives through northern Michigan and, on a later trip, through Key West. Similarly, a drive through the South prompts thoughts on Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Flannery O'Connor.
Particularly welcome are mentions of a great many lesser-known writers with whom McMurtry, a voracious reader, is familiar.
McMurtry is a good storyteller, and he has little problem holding the reader's interest in this slender volume. While he has interesting observations to make about changes he has seen in the American countryside during his long driving career - the proliferation of casinos, the universality of swap meets, the way Interstates give drivers the ability to travel hundreds of miles with almost no human interaction - too little of what he sets down in "Roads" is really memorable, and a great deal is rather shallow and perfunctory.
The best, most effective chapter of the book is the one near the end where he gets off the Interstate and recounts his childhood growing up on a ranch in Texas, traveling unnamed dirt roads, first on horseback and mule cart, and later by truck. Rather than discoursing scattershot as he buzzes the countryside, McMurtry looks at one place deeply, and the results are profoundly moving.
Then the reader follows McMurtry back onto the Interstate for one more drive, from Seattle to Omaha, wishing he had lingered a while longer on the dirt roads of his youth.
*David Conrads is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Mo.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society