mark's Reviews > River-Horse

River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon
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Feb 08, 12

bookshelves: nonfiction, biography-memoir
Recommended for: Adventurers, writers of travel logs
Read from January 30 to February 06, 2012 — I own a copy

There is no hiding in writing. You can run the River Of No Return in central Idaho, you can float the Xingu in central Brazil, raft the Grand Canyon of the wild Colorado, drive the Pacific Coast Highway, travel to faraway lands and cultures, or ride the rails and watch for fires in desolate, lookout towers in the middle of nowhere – you can ride and ride and ride, and run and run and run, but if you choose to write about your journey, you cannot hide who you are. William Least Heat-Moon, author of River Horse: A Voyage Across America is a curmudgeon—a second-order curmudgeon. (See below.) And on top of that, his writing suffers from way, way, way too many metaphors, similes, and analogies. Heat-Moon is in love with himself, his writing style, and his worldview; and is bitter and angry that others don’t fully appreciate his talents. That’s what I get from reading this book. That said, there are some things I like about this story. It is informative and authoritative. I did get a sense of the land and I liked the historical references to the Lewis and Clark expedition and also the local folklores and color.

This is travel writing, a book about Heat-Moon’s 100+ day journey of 5,288 miles across America in 1995, mostly by major waterways, in a 22 foot motorboat, named Nikawa, which in the Osage language means, river horse. And, as one of the author’s travel companion’s notes spelled backward is “Awakin.” Wishful thinking, methinks. If by awakening one means insight into self. Not much of that going on here. The writing style is NPRish. Contrived. Overdone. Too clever. Metaphors and whatnots are for the purpose of expanding understanding — Making sense of the unknown by the knower of, to the unknower of—the unknown. Not to show off but to simplify. For example: The Snake River. Or, The River Of No Return. Which then Heat-Moon dresses up as in his chapter heading: “Bungholes and Bodacious Bounces.” But then, and this is part of what I like about the book, Heat-Moon gives a good declarative, simple opening paragraph that describes the physical characteristics of the canyon, followed by excerpts from L & C Expedition’s Journal and tops that with this local lore descriptor: ‘“Creation chopped it [the Canyon] out with a hatchet.’” (circa 1900) One can imagine a huge god-like man, say Paul Bunyan, standing over the rocky mountains with an axe and chopping away, and then what that would look like – the canyon that the Salmon River carved out in central Idaho. But then one of his (=Heat-Moon’s) pal’s (like attracts like) chimes in with this, ‘“This isn’t a river – it’s a wet elevator.’” (pg. 430 – both) Huh? This kind of muddling metaphor is a constant. Here’s another one: “Things unacknowledged were about to claw into the light like moles desperate in a flooding field.” (pg. 489) Which is a re-statement of what he mused 16 pages earlier, “… – my life off the river caught up that morning …I’d given that other existence time to find me and bring with it much I’d recently failed to do well or even adequately – marriage preeminently – so that when I fully woke, even before I thought I heard the wind, I wanted nothing to do with anything, and lay wishing I could evaporate like a creek when feeder streams dwindle in summer heat until one day the water is gone, leaving behind only an imprint in its bed.” Sh__t. Heat-Moon was 56 when he took this trip, and I know some readers do like this kind of self-wallowing, but it’s not uplifting nor inspiring … makes me glad I haven’t encountered Heat-Moon on any of my travels! It’s NPRish, yes? His worldview is tree-hugging liberal (Nothing wrong with that. I lean that way myself.); and he seems to look down his nose at most of the people he encounters along his journey. This is where the “second-order curmudgeon” comes from. I’ve taken that from David Wallace’s account in his novel The Broom of the System, where Wallace speaks (via a character) about “a second-order vain person.” Which is – pretending not to be vain when you are – which can also be applied to Heat-Moon. So curmudgeon: bad tempered, disapproving, disagreeing person, which is how I find Heat-Moon. And yes, I have some of that in me. Most writers do. But he pretends he’s not, folksin’ up to the folks he encounters on his journey, and then secretly belittling them when he has no further use for them. Anyway, that’s my impression.

I like this kind of book – a travel-log, but not this one. I much preferred Road Angels: Searching for Home on America’s Coast of Dreams (2001) by Kent Nerburn.
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