July 06, 2017
The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway. By Teresa Bruce. Seal Press. $16.99.
One Hundred Spaghetti Strings. By Jen Nails. Harper. $16.99.
The era of soap operas may be over – those glacially paced, long-running TV shows depended on women spending their days at home in front of television sets – but the underlying notion of creating fiction designed to tug at people’s heartstrings seems eternal. And there are few better ways to do that than to draw on unresolved family issues, both present and past. You Can’t Go Home Again is the title of a posthumously published Thomas Wolfe novel, but the best encapsulation of this phenomenon is an earlier one, courtesy of the often-enigmatic Gertrude Stein, who discovered her Oakland, California, house no longer in existence and commented of the place, “There’s no there there.” And so it is for Teresa Bruce, who, however, turns the Wolfe title 180 degrees around by asserting that “you actually can go home again” if you “accept impermanence” and, as a certain generation would have put it, “let it all hang out.” That is what Bruce writes about in The Drive, an account of her honeymoon trip with her husband, Gary, and their 16-year-old arthritic dog, Wipeout, along the Pan-American Highway – the longest road in the world, running an incredible 16,000 miles from Alaska to the southern tip of South America (albeit with a 100-mile gap that prevents motoring from Central to South America). This is very much a First World, proto-hippie, wow-I’m-cool adventure, and reader reaction to it will depend on whether individuals feel the author really is cool or is simply being self-indulgent and broadcasting her belief in her self-importance. She and her husband both have good jobs, which would very much be the envy of many of the people they encounter along the road, and they cavalierly quit them so they can go in search of Bruce’s past and spend “a year without deadlines, assignments, and a steady paycheck.” The premise here – the trip took place in 2003 – is the re-creation of a trip Bruce took as a child, with her family, 30 years earlier, during which her mother carefully kept a journal of places visited, breakdowns that occurred, kindnesses that were shown, and so forth. So the newly unemployed (and who cares about such things?) newly-marrieds start out in Oregon and plan to drive to the southern tip of South America, revisiting places that Bruce last saw 30 years earlier and recapturing as much of that Sixties/Seventies vibe as they can. Bruce seems primed for it, writing at one point of an “absentee landowner, undoubtedly vegan and chakra-mindful, [who] formed a weaving cooperative for women widowed by the Guatemalan civil war”; at another of whether her “father’s ordeal [on the first trip] earned us some kind of karmic hassle pass.” Readers hungry for this sort of language will be well-fed in The Drive. Speaking of which, Bruce writes about keeping a food journal, since that is what her mother did, so readers learn that breakfast was pineapple bread in 2003 and orange-chocolate bread in 1973. There is a serious family matter underlying this flighty journey, as Bruce tries to reconnect in some way with the spirit of her little brother, John John, who died in an accident at the age of three. It is this foundational element that gives The Drive its tearjerker designation and, to some extent, prevents it from coming across as just another wowie-zowie Jack-Kerouac-wannabe story. Again and again, as impervious as they seem to be to the desperate poverty of the nations through which they travel, Bruce and her husband are forced to confront delays and necessary bribes and thoroughly uncharming encounters that Bruce insists were in fact charming because they were so, you know, earthy. Eventually, in Ecuador, after finding a way to get back their ratty and ancient camper (a vehicular symbol of their chosen rather than endemic poverty), Bruce writes, “I understand in this moment that there is no way I should have expected to drive it away without redistributing some of the privilege and power it represents. A bribe to our eyes is simply delayed compensation to others.” But this modicum of self-awareness is pretty much all that Bruce absorbs. She is determined, determined, to find the actual camper in which her family traveled 30 years earlier, even though “this continued, willful resurrection of every frightening memory of my childhood belittles its joys and erases the good of the Samaritans who stepped in to lift my seven-year-old spirits” after John John’s death. The book needs a climax, of course, so yes, it ends when Bruce does find the original camper, and gets the closure she has sought, and it is all thoroughly heartwarming and designed to produce an extended sigh of “awwwwwwww” from readers. Those of a more practical mindset, though, will have learned that while there may be a highly personal reason to drive the Pan-American highway, there are many, many, many more reasons to stay far, far away from it and from the sorts of people who willingly abandon a life of privilege and comparative wealth to roam a road that bisects areas of extreme poverty and grinding deprivation, a place where no one is ever likely to have the luxury of making the sorts of choices that led Bruce to begin The Drive.
A kind of food journal of a different sort comes from Jen Nails in One Hundred Spaghetti Strings. In fact, the whole book is a kind of fictional food memoir for young readers. Bruce’s real-life travelogue is written for adults and structured novelistically, giving it a distinct story arc even though it is a work drawn from the author’s life. But writers of emotion-soaked books for younger readers often prefer to produce actual novels, so the authors can pluck the heartstrings at exactly the right moments – as Nails does in her food-focused menu of a narrative, which is intended for ages 8-12. The central character here is 11-year-old Steffy Sandolini, a fifth-grader with a talent for cooking and a heaping helping of family problems – those are built into pretty much all tearjerkers, for all ages. Steffy and her older sister, Nina, who is 13, have been living with Auntie Gina, but Gina wants to move in with her boyfriend, Harry, and the girls’ wayward father has now shown up – after previously abandoning the sisters – to join the group. As if that wasn’t enough of a recipe for angst, Steffy’s mom lives in an assisted-care facility because she has a traumatic brain injury suffered in an accident that is one thing that led Steffy’s dad to disappear. The other thing is addiction, which he tries to hide. Obviously there are plenty of opportunities here to explore emotional upheavals, and Nails goes through them systematically if not always smoothly – the chapters are named for various dishes that Steffy prepares in trying to cope with life and find her way in the world, and the result is a kind of cafeteria-style presentation in which events that follow each other are not always seamlessly connected. Steffy’s reason for using cooking as a coping mechanism has to do with her mother’s old Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, in which Steffy finds handwritten notes as well as printed recipes. The attempt to regain the past in order to build a better future thus uses a “notes from an earlier time” theme similar to that in The Drive. Steffy thinks of her family as ingredients, and the book is essentially about her attempts to whip up something nutritious, if not necessarily delicious, from what life has handed her. The metaphor is rather strained, and it eventually subsumes the story: the final 40 pages of the book are not narrative but “all the recipes I made this year.” The story itself does not come to a rousing or even especially satisfying conclusion: Steffy raises some big questions but does not answer them particularly well, and although that leads to considerable poignancy and accurately reflects how real life works, it makes for a less-than-satisfying wrapup in novelistic terms. One Hundred Spaghetti Strings is carefully designed to elicit readers’ emotions, especially those of preteens with a strong interest in cooking – although that is likely a rather limited audience. The book has some nicely seasoned elements but, as a whole, its flavor is a bit off.