Awst Press ($14)
by Guillermo Rebollo Gil
The driver, about to turn thirty-eight, is driving his friend’s Subaru from Philadelphia to LA. It’s not like he drives for a living—he mostly reads and writes. He has a girlfriend but is unsure if they have a future together. He has a teaching job in a university but it’s not his dream job. Having written a few books that remain unfinished, he is doubting the course his life has taken. His friend, the car owner, just landed a job writing for television and it’s good money, more than the driver has ever made. He starts to cry, big, “embarrassing” tears. He pulls over; fortunately, he’s alone. Unfortunately, too.
Mike Ingram’s book-length essay Notes from the Road is about a low-key life crisis that leads the author to pack a bag and take a cross-country trip along Route 66. Personal crises are only low-key in comparison to obviously bigger phenomena, but they are not low-key if you happen to be in the middle of one. When writing about them, though, it’s important to avoid melodrama, and Ingram’s prose practices this subtle art of avoidance. He writes: “I ate lunch in Tucumcari, at a restaurant that billed itself as Mexican-American, which turned out to mean Mexican food prepared and served exclusively by white people. It was ok, in the way that about eighty-five percent of life is OK.”
The real trip is, of course, toward the self. Ingram is smart not to offer any big epiphanies in these pages, nor does he make any life-changing decisions. What he does, rather brilliantly, is inch closer to attaining some perspective—which, here, is not so much about seeing things any more clearly than before; it’s about seeing them with more honesty and vulnerability. Notes from the Road documents this process without spelling it out: “I’d been on the road for six days, but it felt like much longer. My back hurt. I’d developed a complicated relationship with the check engine light. I hadn’t smoked a cigarette in forty days . . . and the absence of chemicals in my bloodstream had left me feeling raw, exposed, as if everything inside my body was happening a little too close to the skin.”
At the end, Ingram is not in a better place. He’s in LA for a day and then must fly back home, where the same concerns and anxieties await. But he does manage to make a long list of things that bring him joy: apples, dad jokes, the first day of spring on a college campus. It’s unclear if these things make his life a good one, or if the doubts over the job, the girlfriend, and the unfinished books outmatch them. And isn’t that the crux of it? With enough effort, we can come to recognize and count our many blessings, and still feel underwhelmed by the final tally. Ingram seems to know quite a bit about this process.
Importantly, though, Ingram has no expert advice to give, nor does he look to serve as our role model. He simply offers this earnest, moving account of his trip and his life, and it’s a generous gesture, like receiving the lecture notes from a loyal friend: You still feel somewhat lost upon returning to class, but at least you don’t have to start from nothing.
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