Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway, Phil Patton (Simon & Schuster: $7.95). While the author's festive spirit has led him to overstate the highway's significance (It is, he writes, "as close as anything we have to a central national space"), his book succeeds as an entertaining history of highway building and planning. Phil Patton, who began writing the official biography of Voyager crew members Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager last month, takes readers on a historical trip from Le Corbusier (who envisioned elevated superhighways soaring among skyscrapers, over open parks and past terrace cafes where patrons happily sipped espresso) to Lewis Mumford (who decried the freeways' pillars and shadows for turning the city blocks into mottled jungle floors). Patton also effectively chronicles the present, reporting on roadside quirks; "old fishermen never die," says one roadside sign, "they just smell that way."
Some of the author's theories are plausible and interesting, such as this insight about Los Angeles: "As the dominant conception of superhighways in the city was one of escape, it was fitting that in the city where they were most important they were named for destinations--Pasadena, San Diego, Santa Monica." More often, however, Patton reads too much into the road, engaging in wild sociological speculation: "When the gas lines arrived, the crisis of the highway seemed to put in immediate physical terms the other crises of national character: Watergate, the fall of South Vietnam, and the Iranian hostage crisis. The crisis of the highway stood as an expression of some larger failing of energy and identity, a weakening of the national skeleton." Aden, Arabie, Paul Nizan; The Hedge, Miguel Delibes (Columbia University: $10.95 and $9.95). The authors' characters are similarly trapped: Jacinto, the timid and undistinguished office clerk in "The Hedge" retreats to the countryside, but cannot escape the corporation's tendrils; the narrator in "Aden, Arabie" tries to flee his bourgeois life in France by seeking the exoticism of the Middle East, but finds the freedom of travel to be illusory. They are captives of a society without ideals--a point brought home when a doctor scribbles on Jacinto's medical record, "Still believes in man and in a good conscience. Under observation."