I’m not sure if Americans being reluctant to get out and see more of the country and world is strictly a post 9/11 thing, like we’re not safe here, but we’re way less safe anywhere else, or if it’s always been this way. All I know is that I don’t see that many great books about stepping out of your comfort zone and into the back of a car or hiking for miles. There are glimmering examples, memoirs that have become famous where the writer travels some distance in search of something, but they aren’t totally sure what, but they’re usually so celebrated that their long tails trail behind them for some distance so it might seem like it just came out. Rob Spillman’s All Tomorrow’s Parties isn’t necessarily about the author and Tin House editor striking out in search of something, but the parts of his wondrous new memoir that do find him and his wife, the writer Elissa Schappell, traveling through a new Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are addictive. The entire book that tells the story of Spillman’s childhood and adolescence is enjoyable and has its share of beautiful moments, but he writes about being a young expat in a way that you just don’t see that much for whatever reason, possibly because Americans are so strapped to their home. “Last night’s battle between the skinheads and anarchists has coated the streets with smashed Molotovs,” Spillman writes early in the book. What a time to be alive, I thought as I read that.
Of course, the reality is that any single time in history is a special time to be alive since everything is fleeting and time is a flat circle, or whatever. But Spillman’s recounting of the time after the Wall fell is especially compelling. His story of moving from Germany to America, of family secrets coming to the surface, self-discovery, and the almost pastoral scene painting like “we traveled from the simple beauty of the sunbaked Kansas wheat fields to the chemical-clouded skies over Joliet. The threshed Midwest fields blurred by, then the strip-mined Pennsylvania hills,” and so on, stands on its own, but there’s something about the parts about his travels that I couldn’t shake after I’d put the book down.
A few days after I finished All Tomorrow’s Parties, I sat talking with somebody who was about 20 years older than me, who mentioned the Beats. I did that thing where I said something like, “Burroughs was a visionary, and I liked On the Road…when I was 14.” It was some pretentious garbage like that and I always wince inside whenever I catch myself. But in the case of Kerouac’s most famous book, I’ve spent much of the last two decades trying to tell people how I’m sure it’s not such a good book. Of course, I haven’t read it in years. I still respect a good deal of artists considered his peers and others he influenced, but I tend to dismiss it more often than not.
Why do I mention On the Road? Probably because Spillman’s memoir conjures up some of the feelings Kerouac’s book once did when I was younger. No matter what I might think about the book now, I read it when I dreamed of the bigger world beyond my neighborhood’s horizon, it helped me believe I could get out. It was one I could see by car or boat or foot, one that I was obsessed with getting to know, and I have seen some of it, but nowhere near enough. The world that Spillman writes about is a world I’ll never get to see. I can go back to the same places he writes of, but I’ll never be able to be back in that specific place and time, seeing what he saw. That’s why it’s so important that a writer takes on the task of telling their story with the kind of care Spillman employs, and that’s one of the things that makes A Sense of Direction so enjoyable.
This isn’t supposed to be some breakdown of one of the most famous American novels ever, I’m still talking about Spillman here, I swear. But I will say that the restless writer on the road is something I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of and would love to see more of. Whether it’s Cheryl Strayed trying to walk off so much heartbreak or Gideon Lewis-Kraus in search of something, but he just doesn’t know what it is, in his wonderful A Sense of Direction, the wandering writer is almost always interesting to me. What they see, what they feel, where they’re going, what they think they’re looking for, and what they think they’ll find. Spillman’s book isn’t necessarily just about his travels, and every chapter switches from his youth to his adulthood, but the book is about his journey, with every page an ecstatic celebration of this thing called life in all of its weird and short glory. And damn if it doesn’t make me want to get out of the house, into a car, onto a plane, and then walk around some place far away and just write down what I’m seeing and hearing and feeling in a notebook.