One of the secondary benefits of playing in the mountains a lot is that, at some point, someone has likely introduced you to the website Semi-Rad. Brendan Leonard is the man behind Semi-Rad, and he publishes wonderful little weekly pieces that tend to be pitch perfect, spot on, poignant and / or hilarious.
(As evidence, check out his “How to Get Your new Boyfriend / Girlfriend to Hate Your Sport,” “Pooping in the Outdoors: A Flow Chart,” and “Ouch Maps.”)
Last year, Brendan published a full-length book, and being a big fan of his short work, I was curious to see what he would do with a couple hundred pages.
I was also intrigued by his book’s title, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, as well as this pretty excellent trailer for the book:
Brendan is clearly hunting some big game here, targeting many of life’s fundamental questions. I wanted to see how he fared.
1) It’s a book about a particular breakup, which leads to lots of musings about romantic relationships in general, and raises a lot of those even broader Big Questions.
2) It’s a book about other books.
3) It’s a book about spending time in the mountains and the corresponding risks we take there.
4) And yes, it’s also a book about life on the road and road trips, though the road trip here really functions to set up the discussion of the above three things.
The first area is where I think The New American Road Trip Mixtape is most successful.
Brendan’s account of a break up at the start of the book (a break up that led him to give up his apartment in Denver and go hit the road in search of all of those big questions) is treated very directly and clearly. It might almost be tempting to describe it as simplistic, except that, if you’ve ever been through the painful end of a relationship or the thrill of a new one, you’ll know that his straightforward account gets it right.
There is a remarkable openness and transparency here, a complete lack of artifice. The primary effect of Leonard’s language isn’t to impress the reader with its rhetorical flourishes, but to connect and share. In that way, the book feels more like a confessional than a work of art, and I found myself thinking that it should be required reading for high school seniors or college freshmen, since virtually all of them will experience the rise and fall of at least one relationship in their lifetime. It’s like a primer on what’s to come.
Relationships are very much at the heart of the matter in The New American Road Trip Mixtape, and it’s where Brendan’s story telling is the most compelling (his dissection of his own past relationships, as well as the current relationships of some of his friends). So it is on these grounds that I most highly recommend the book, because chances are, you are going to be reading along and think to yourself (a) I was in a relationship like that, or (b) I am currently in a relationship like that, or (c) I want to be in a relationship like that.
A Book about Books (and Literary Ambitions)
Right from the get-go (the book’s epigraph is a line taken from Kerouac’s On the Road), Leonard begins to reference Kerouac and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. There are also mentions of Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, etc. (“They were classics, something to emulate, if I could figure out how, without copying him”) and many other authors and books.
Normally, I love this sort of thing, when writers introduce other books into their own. But for all of Leonard’s many references to great authors, he doesn’t offer much that illuminates their writing—wrestling with or pointing out for us certain problems or solutions or complexities in these books—he’s mostly just grabbing quotes from them. For example, right before he himself makes the rather simple observation that driving places presents a great opportunity for reflection, Leonard notes that Steinbeck already pointed that out in Travels with Charley.
In short, Leonard doesn’t make great use of the great books he brings up. And that sometimes has the unfortunate effect of seeming like he simply wants to let the record show that he’s read some stuff. The presence of the books that meant so much to him growing up don’t really enhance what Leonard is up to in Mixtape, nor does he shed much light on what Steinbeck or Maclean or Kerouac were up to. At best, this feels like a missed opportunity to actually put those books to work.
On a related note, while Leonard’s own sentences are simple (The New American Road Trip Mixtape is definitely what you would call an easy read), Leonard repeatedly reminds us of his own literary ambitions, and repeatedly worries whether he has the abilities to achieve those ambitions. Furthermore, he circles back several times to the topics of reading and writing, and the relationship between reading and writing (that you need to do a lot of the former to get good at the latter). That’s all fine and good, but what does all this handwringing about writing have to do with his breakup? Or hitting the road to answer life’s bigger questions?
While these literary topics are all good ones in their own right, I don’t feel that they ever really earn their place in this particular story.
“Only Connect…” (Back on Track)
Leonard doesn’t actually mention E.M. Forster, but I’m going to reappropriate that famous epigraph to Howard’s End as a way to get back to where Leonard truly does succeed, skipping past the worries about whether he measures up against the literary pantheon, and moving instead to a less grandiose but more meaningful hope he has for his own writing: “All my life … some song by some band or a section of dialogue in a movie, a passage of writing in a book would resonate with me so deeply that I would think for just a second that maybe it was about me, about all of us. And all I wanted to do in my life was make one thing, one piece of art, a book, that did that for someone.”
Many of the best passages in The New American Road Trip Mixtape come from their author’s fearless transparency and vulnerability, and they do resonate, shed light.
And this is not only true of Leonard’s discussion of his break up, but in his numerous passages about climbing and taking risks in the mountains. In describing a number of nerve-wracking moments that each of us can likely relate to, he asks in all seriousness, Why was I out here?
His answers are very much worth reading, as are his insights about why we sometimes tolerate greater risk than we otherwise might. Those are all topics that each of us ought to consider, and perpetually reconsider.
Even if The New American Road Trip Mixtape might have made better use of the literary figures and texts Leonard clearly admires, his own sincerity and transparency will resonate with anyone who is drawn to the outdoors, and everyone who has either been in or out of a relationship, perplexed.