Divine Magnetic Lands, by Timothy O'Grady

On the road to ruin
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The Independent Culture

To young Timothy O'Grady, son of the Midwest, and of a dentist who practised in Chicago, the road was a prison, or better yet a purgatory to be endured en route to the eternal sunshine of the summer vacation. That Timothy O'Grady, as he informs us, wore shirts with button-down collars, parted his hair, was innocent of the counter-culture, and teed off with his high-school golf team. He was the descendant of Irish Catholics, and it was another such who removed the scales from his eyes.

For him, Jack Kerouac's On the Road was the forbidden fruit. Its jazzy, speed-driven prose pumped him up, and in effect remapped his future. But it didn't change young O'Grady at a molecular level. His older self notes that Kerouac, High Priest of the Beats, saw the derivation of "beat" not only in the hot metal of Charlie Parker's tenor sax, not only in the beat-up hopes of hobos, but also (above all) in the beatific tradition of Catholic revelation.

Likewise the Catholic god remains alive in O'Grady's heart, if not his head, for Divine Magnetic Lands (subtitled "a journey in America") is both a book of revelation, and a book of judgement. Its starting point may have been the Technicolor dream of On the Road, but its end anticipates the post-apocalyptic monochrome of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Unless... unless the American people wake up in time to replace sulphurous mammon with something sweeter-smelling.

Unless they listen to and take heed of what Martha Gelhorn calls "the life-saving minority of Americans who judge their government in moral terms", it will be the fire next time. I'll say amen to that: the last thing America (or the world) needs is President McBush.

But Divine Magnetic Lands is more than a political tract (though, God knows, the statistics O'Grady quotes to demonstrate the despoliation Bush and his cronies have visited upon the land they purport to love stick in the memory as well as the craw), more than a prophetic fulmination. As its Whitmanesque title suggests, it celebrates the seductive allure of the bedrock: its trees and birds, its mountains and rivers, its deserts and canyon, its great plains and prairies, its cornucopia of marvels which stretch from sea to shining sea. Beneath the smell of incense, there's more than an earthy whiff of pantheism.

O'Grady's odyssey thus shows a nation in the balance; on the one side the rottenness, the fishy smell of a decaying Bush, on the other, sufficient marvels to still strike sparks from the soul of the curious. His book chronicles a pair of extensive road trips around his native land (which he quit in 1973 for the Catholic heartlands of Europe; Ireland, Spain, and latterly Poland). He covered over 15,000 miles; first east to west via the northlands (along the old emigrant trail), then returning through the southlands.

For the most part he travelled alone, save for when he was joined for short stretches by the photographer Steve Pyke (his collaborator on an earlier book, I Could Read the Sky) and his daughter, Aoife O'Grady. His modus operandi remained the same: drive all day, check into a cheap motel, then find a companionable bar. Only in university towns, certain outposts of liberality, were his fellow drinkers stand-offish; elsewhere he could hardly cross the distance between door and bar-stool before being offered a potted biography and a bed for the night.

These garrulous folk were generally unappealing if not downright scary to look upon, and their stories were of displacement and disappointment. For all that, there remains something in their spirit both generous and uniquely American, something that gives the reader cause to hope that all is not lost with that great nation. O'Grady is equally generous in the space he allows these raconteurs as in the room he offers more erudite types, who comment on history, politics and environmental issues.

It dawns gradually upon the reader that the true model for O'Grady's exploration is neither Kerouac nor Whitman, but one whose name is unspoken in the text, though the book's design (with uncaptioned photographs) sings it out loud. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that O'Grady's publisher was also the publisher of Max Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (not about outer space, but the inner space of East Anglia), but I doubt it.

In Montana, O'Grady met his cousin, a man much like himself, except that his life was derailed not by books but by conscription and a tour in Vietnam. Dwelling upon the complications of repression and emotional numbness, the cousin remarks: "That's the mindset of a doctor with a good practise and a family who, 20 years down the line from Vietnam, puts a gun to his head and blows his brains out." Replace "Vietnam" with "Holocaust" and you have the plot of "Dr Henry Selwyn", the first chapter of Sebald's The Emigrants. Whether this tribute is conscious or unconscious, O'Grady remains a noteworthy addition to the tradition Sebald pioneered, a tradition that mixes travel, history, fiction and introspection into the literary equivalent of a new world.

Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador