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Now in Paperback

June 14, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

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."

Their resolutions, however, are different, for Jacinto is defeated, while Nizan's hero remains defiant in the face of defeat. Jacinto's world of subjugation by strangers has the eerie, alienated feeling of Kafka's "The Castle": The corporate boss, "with his broad watermelon smile . . . pressed the button of the bell protected by a gold plate, waited a few seconds for the pilot light to turn green, gave a little cough of collusion and, at last, went into that office to which no one but himself had access." Meanwhile, "two hundred faces with the bluish pallor of paper would look up from the paper simultaneously, and a ripple of admiration, like a rising sea, would emerge from the army of clerks."

Delibes effectively brings home the drudgery of Jacinto's life--he copies endless rows of zeroes in "very careful calligraphy"--by naming, rather than using punctuation on several pages, forcing readers to substitute one sign for another. Jacinto eventually musters the courage to retreat to the countryside, but there, too, the corporation shows its omnipresence, metamorphosing in a surreal scene involving the hedge, and Jacinto is forced to submit.

Like Delibes, Nizan posits that society's forces are beyond our ken. Unlike Delibes, Nizan does not think that we should give in to the dominant myopia; we should, in fact, fight it, he concludes at book's end: "You are solitary men. When you are dining, when you are in a theater or a movie, when you are walking on the sidewalk, when you are in bed with a woman, look for traps."

Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control and Contraceptive Choice, Betsy Hartmann (Harper & Row: $10.95). The United States is seldom criticized for its international population policy; bringing birth control to overpopulated developing nations seems, after all, like a good thing. Betsy Hartmann offers a convincing argument, however, that the real solution lies not in coercive population-control programs, but in efforts "to improve living standards and the quality of health and family planning services." Hartmann calls for an expansion, rather than restriction, of individual reproductive choice, making her case convincing by considering the arguments of the other side.

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