When I read William Least Heat Moon’s first travel book Blue Highways , I had no idea that it was going to be famous. All I knew was that I loved it.That was in the early eighties and since then I’ve tried to be on the lookout for Least Heat Moon’s books . I’ve read PrairyErth and Roads to Quoz and enjoyed them both though not as much as Blue Highways. River Horse didn’t sustain my interest but that might have been my fault ; Least Heat Moon’s books have to be read slowly and savored and I am an impatient reader. It was with high hopes, that I started reading his latest Here , There, Elsewhere but now, having read it , I am a little disappointed.
Unlike Moon’s earlier books , Here There, Elsewhere is a collection of his travel pieces written for various magazines over the past 30 years. It differs also from his earlier efforts in that these articles are about his travels all over the world, not just America . There are travel pieces about the back country of Japan , England , New Zealand , Italy, Mexico and the Shetlands and Orkneys off the coast of Scotland, in addition to articles about his travels in the United States. The result is a book that is very uneven : when it is good , it is excellent but there are other parts that are ho-hum. This is not surprising because these articles were written for different magazines , whose various editors had definite ideas of what their readers wanted to read and edited and slanted the articles accordingly . Moon says that he has restored the articles to their original form but the fact remains that he was sometimes writing about subjects that he might not himself have chosen. It would have been interesting to know which magazine each of the articles appeared in .
In general , I liked the articles on America better . Moon has a feel for this country , particularly the Great Plains , that shines through in his writing . When he writes about his travels abroad , he doesn’t write with the same authority. One of the charms about Least Heat Moon’s books is his interaction with the characters he meets on his travels . These are people whom we will never come across on our own and Moon’s conversations with them are entertaining even as they enable us to better understand the world they live in .The best articles in this book are those which are larded with such encounters .In particular I liked Out East On the North Fork ( about Long Island) and A Little Tour In Yoknapatawpha County ( about Faulkner’s mythical Mississippi county).I also love it when he describes the way things used to be in his childhood days . The Last Thanksgiving of Whispers-to-Hawks ( about an eccentric relative very proud of his Indianness) is hilarious and that are other lovely pieces about travel in Kansas in the old days and travelling through small-town America. Enjoyable too are chapters on the writing of his earlier books.
Conversely , when Moon describes desolate landscapes, bare of people ,I find myself wanting to skip to the next chapter . A prime example is The Old Land of Misfortune , about a jaunt in south-west Oregon , a region that he calls the Big Empty. It is not a place that I would want to visit . Why would I want to read about it ?
In his introduction to the book , Moon fulminates against the style of writing in most journalism today. He laments that ” the so-called plain style, with its hallmark , the simple declarative sentence free of subordinate clauses ,reigns supreme and with it , too often , a decline of fluently sophisticated locutions and illuminating modifiers.” I understand what he his getting at and I agree with him , for the most part. However , in his love of complex sentences and obscure words ( sesquipedal ? caliginous ? toponyms ?) , I think Moon sometimes goes too far , showing off rather than elucidating. I wish too that there was some order in the arrangement of the pieces, either chronological or geographical . Moon says that originally assembled them in chronological order but then re-arranged them intuitively ( whatever that means) leaving it to readers find the theme, if any , for themselves. The lack of any order makes the book seem like a hodgepodge.
I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Here , There, Elsewhere . William Least Heat Moon is a great travel writer and this book is well worth reading . You might however want to pick your spots and skip some of the chapters.