The Reading Room

Geert Mak’s ‘In America’

Review of Geert Mak’s ‘In America’…

In 2010 the Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak followed in the footsteps of the author John Steinbeck, who travelled across America fifty years earlier in research for his book ‘Travels with Charley’.  Unbeknownst to Mak and his wife he was not alone in having the same idea and I recently watched an interview with an American journalist who made the same journey and discredited much of what Steinbeck alleged to have witnessed during his road trip.

I haven’t read Steinbeck’s account yet but I soon shall and it will be interesting to compare his vision of the country to that of Mak’s half a century later. Mak of course reveals Steinbeck’s observations throughout his own book whilst describing the changes in American society and the impact of the post-war industrialisation boom and its subsequent demise. This, for me, is where Mak lays the foundations for what would eventually lead to Trump’s victory in areas long since bereft of hope.

It is clear that Mak knows and likes America, he doesn’t shirk from highlighting the grim realities of life for the average Joe which are an embarrassment to such a rich country: ‘Today the mobile home is still a symbol of freedom, but it increasingly represents poverty. Driving around the country, you soon notice the thousands of Americans for whom a ‘recreational vehicle (RV) is home….For most of the rest, an RV is the last stop before the gutter. “If you want to see the poorest part of a city, you need to visit the trailer courts” my American friend told me “The new immigrants gather here in RV’s, and you can see all the people who’ve run aground one way or another, all the failures”

Perhaps nowhere is more representative of America’s decaying underbelly than Detroit, once one of the country’s richest cities. At the time of writing in 2010 Mak gives us some chilling statistics: In 1960 two million people lived there, fifty years later it is the poorest city in America with a population of 700,000. Of that, Mak tells us, twenty eight percent are unemployed with fifty percent of blacks without work. Thirty eight percent of families living in Detroit in 2010 were living below the poverty line; ‘Right now around 60,000 of the homes are empty, a third of the total. The average price of a house in 2003 was $98,000, by the end of 2009 it had fallen to $15,000 and with a bit of luck you can get a place for a thousand.’

Throughout the book Mak gives an historical perspective on how America got to where it is today, he goes beyond the Steinbeck era and to the days of the founding fathers before zipping us back to the present day. It is often disjointed but he makes it work and none more so than in the dialogues of ‘real Americans’: ‘On his travels around the country in the mid-1990s, Robert Kaplan interviewed a Navajo called Cayce Boone, whose job it was to connect and disconnect cable TV in the trailers and who was therefore one of the few to enter homes of this sort regularly. What he encountered day and night, he said were dirty people who couldn’t read, didn’t talk to each other, had few, if any relatives or friends, could barely put food on the table for their children, and were often just one unpaid bill away from bankruptcy and homelessness. The little money they had, they spent on cable television. “TV”, he said, “is the whole existence for a new class of silent people”

Mak’s take on the journey is an interesting one, yes, he has an agenda other than that of following Steinbeck, but he makes a compelling case for looking at America in a different light. That light isn’t all bleak however, you get the sense that he remains optimistic for its future but for those compelled to vote for Trump as an answer to the lost glory days of the 1950s it seems a hard sell.

I must confess to having mixed thoughts about reading Steinbeck’s account, his closest friends raised an eyebrow when they read it, journalists have questioned the timescales of physically getting to the places he said he reached and perhaps his skill at writing fiction permeated into some of the meetings with the public he records during his journey. Mak’s version brings the journey to its present day, and for those of us living outside of the US it proves to be an interesting and useful read. At the end of it you cannot help but wonder at the billions of dollars spent on bombing Afghanistan and Iraq whilst its own people live in fear of medical bills, gang violence, unemployment and applying for food stamps. It’s sobering stuff.

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