Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey is Colby Buzzell’s response to his publisher’s pitch to update an American classic. Instructed to “retrace Kerouac’s footsteps and paint a contemporary portrait of America” and to write “a love letter to Kerouac”, Buzzell wholeheartedly agrees and immediately cashes the advance check. And also immediately lets the reader know “Like hell I am.” This is no homage to Kerouac or classic American literature.
The book opens with a quote from Kurt Cobain and each succeeding chapter opens with yet another in the same nihilistic vein. Very little of the book has to do with the trip Buzzell took across the country. It is more of a travel guide on his road to some semblance of grown-up life as well as a meditation on family. Twin earthquakes struck in quick succession: his mother’s death and his son’s birth. He chose to delay the trip for the first, but not the second. Buzzell remarked on several occasions that he needed to find the plot. Where would the book go? What was the hook? It is easy to see and surmise that this applied to his life as well as to the writing assignment.
For all intents and purposes, the six-month trip ended in Detroit. For Buzzell, this city is Ground Zero for the disaffected and disowned. Suicide is mentioned more than once, and one could argue that his actions in Detroit were a form of passively attempting such. He also used the city to draw a parallel between Kerouac’s Beat Generation and today’s beat down generation. He repeatedly referred to the city, the buildings and occupants as looking as though they had recently suffered a scud missile attack.
Ostensibly travelling across the country looking for and working odd jobs, Buzzell spent a great deal of the book drinking, drunk or hung over. It is hard to imagine that this is the approach someone would take if they were actually trying to pay the rent. In some ways, he’s a very unlikable character. It’s not just the alcohol; this world does that to people. It’s not that he ran from his responsibilities; many have run far further from far less. Perhaps it’s his constant over-justification. A common theme throughout the book is his lack of self-confidence, yet he seems absolutely confident, righteous even, in justifying his actions. None of this makes Lost in America a bad book. After all, America loves her villains almost as much as she loves her heroes.
Available 23 August 2011