Rupert Cornwell takes a ringside seat in the great American freak show
Almost Heaven: travels in backwoods America

by Martin Fletcher

Little, Brown, pounds 17.99

My first emotion on reading this book was sheer envy. Who lives for any time in the United States and does not dream of just saying to hell with it, getting in his car and driving from sea to shining sea? The nearest I got was a fortnight-long, 3,300 mile midsummer sprint from St Louis to Seattle - not even coast-to-coast. Martin Fletcher has done the job properly: a five-month, 12,000-mile meander through the byways and backwaters of an ever-astonishing country. The result is a gourmet's guide to the boondocks.

Do these represent the quintessential America, as claimed by the flyleaf blurb? Almost certainly not. That distinction belongs sadly to the strip malls and suburban sprawls of Anywhere USA. After all, the Republican electoral successes since 1980 were founded on the realisation that more than 50 per cent of US citizens live not in inner cities or the wilderness, but in highly regulated and utterly homogeneous suburbs. But the boondocks do throw up some American traits in their starkest form. If you've ever wondered why powerful national politicians like Jesse Helms are so viscerally against the UN, for example, reflect an instant on the paranoid militia communities of the West, convinced that all life is a plot for the UN to take over America.

Far more important, though: the boondocks are fun. "If you avoid the interstates there is no such thing as a boring journey in America," Fletcher writes. One reason is the scenery, rarely less than fascinating and often stunning. But the entertainment value also derives from two other national traits: parish-pump patriotism, and a readiness to carry things to extremes. The title derives not from John Denver's line about West Virginia in "Country Roads" but from a "covenant community" of survivalists hunkering down for Armageddon on a mountain in Idaho, run by a former Vietnam commando and sometime Presidential candidate named Colonel Bo Gritz.

Fletcher is a deft writer who knows that with such material, no point needs labouring. His trail ranges from islanders in Chesapeake Bay who speak a frozen Elizabethan English to bearhunters and snake-handling fundamentalist Christians in West Virginia, through the south and south-west and then north-west to Seattle. Along the way, he confirms a truth I have long held to be self-evident: of all the places that contribute to the great American freak show, the freakiest is the Lone Star State.

Texas provides the two best vignettes of Almost Heaven - and these do not include the well-nigh obligatory sketch of shabby-genteel Huntsville, which goes about its business oblivious of the fact that in the redbrick prison in its central square, more people (34 in 1997) are executed than anywhere in the US and, for all I know, in any single prison in the world. Such was ever the way of the West.

Two other characters tell far more about the real America. One is TJ, high-school football coach in Sealy, west of Houston, and high priest of the real religion in small-town Texas. The other is Robert Richard, a preacher who mans a mobile chapel at a gigantic truck stop just outside Dallas, and sometimes attracts not a single customer to his evening service. "I enjoy this more than anything," Richard says after being rebuffed by yet another brawny trucker. Thus speaks quintessential American optimism.