Vick Mickunas: This literary road trip might cure some cabin fever

“The National Road-Dispatches from a Changing America” by Tom Zoellner
“The National Road-Dispatches from a Changing America” by Tom Zoellner

“The National Road-Dispatches from a Changing America” by Tom Zoellner (Counterpoint, 264 pages, $26).

In December, I covered my favorite books from 2020. One non-fiction title I listed was a book of essays by Tom Zoellner called “The National Road-Dispatches from a Changing America.”

I interviewed the author on my radio program — I wasn’t able to review it until now. During our conversation, he talked about his long career writing for newspapers. He mentioned that it has gotten more difficult to obtain book reviews in newspapers.

Last year, newspaper advertising revenue that has been in decline since the onset of Craigslist competition continued to suffer. It is the rare regional newspaper, like this one, that still values book coverage by local writers. Many papers now pull reviews from wire services.

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With that in mind, I really wanted to be able to spread the word about this captivating book. The best travel writing will transport us and during these pandemic times it can be quite rejuvenating to visit different locales without vacating the comforts of our easy chairs.

Zoellner takes us across the country in these essays-he states this book “attempts to paint a picture of ‘American place’ in this uncertain era of political toxin and economic rearrangement.”

This is a fellow who loves being behind the wheel. In his essay “Drive,” he writes “I have crossed and re-crossed the breadth of the United States alone, more or less coast to coast at least thirty times in the course of twenty years ...”

He confesses to having a peculiar fascination with certain points of interest. In the essay “Mormon Historical Sites at Night,” he details some unusual nocturnal adventures he has had when stopping by locations associated with the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

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In his title piece “The National Road,” Zoellner traces the route of the original thoroughfare that passed through our region and “the countryside around Springfield, Ohio, which had first prospered from traffic on the National Road and then the later gift of industrialization before falling into gentle economic decline.”

In that piece, he explains how the appearance of the now ubiquitous “dollar stores” can be indications that communities are heading in to a decline as grocery stores vanish and areas become food deserts.

The final essay, “At the End There Will Be Strangers,” is a poignant and powerful examination of the transience of our culture. Zoellner’s family had a house in Arizona that was built by his grandparents. As time, passed the surrounding neighborhood became an enclave of million dollar mansions.

The property got sold to a wealthy Canadian who bought the lot to tear down the house to erect yet another pleasure palace. The author asked if he could be present for the demolition. He watched as all the memories that place represented were turned into rubble and dust in mere moments.

“The National Road” takes readers on a whirlwind journey that is meticulously detailed, thought-provoking, and exquisitely rendered, with just a touch of vertigo to assure that you are still paying attention.

ABOUT THE BOOK

“The National Road-Dispatches from a Changing America” by Tom Zoellner (Counterpoint, 264 pages, $26).

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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