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Book Review : Grand Tour: From Bryan to Graceland

February 15, 1988|CAROLYN SEE

Elvis Presley Boulevard From Sea to Shining Sea, Almost by Mark Winegardner (Atlantic Monthly Press: 223 pages $7.95, paperback)

"Somewhere in central Kentucky, near Big Bone Lick State Park, we stopped at a Stuckey's for gasoline, batteries for my tape recorder and a pecan log. 'Don't buy any of the other candy,' Bob warned, pointing at the faded, dusty boxes. 'That's been here since the war--and I don't mean Vietnam, which was a police action.' "

Since the beginning of time, young men (and sometimes women) have yearned to take some time off between the end of their formal educations and the inevitable moment when they must take up all the rigors of adult life--marriage, a job, children, the works. In the Renaissance, young Englishmen staved off their adulthood by jaunting around the Continent taking the Grand Tour. In the present, the inexplicable yearning of some members of the American underclass to join the Marines, go to some obscure country their parents can't even find on the map, and get their heads blown off may be a kind of low-budget off-shoot of this need to get out for awhile. College kids still go to Europe after they graduate, if they can afford it. But the great American adventure--immortalized by such diverse writers as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jack Kerouac--is just to get in a covered wagon, or the car, and head out across our own amazing country, to see what happens.

Hobos and Poets

Young Laura knew that there was nothing better than starting from one place and not knowing where you'd end up by the end of the day; not even caring. Jack Kerouac, driving madly through Magic America a hundred years later, discovered that the crossroads of the country might well be Denver, where hobos and poets crossed paths, and the mountains all around lent grandeur to the most obscure low haunts.

Anyway! Mark Winegardner, writing in the first person, writing nonfiction, has grown up in Bryan, Ohio. His heritage has included a marvelous set of parents and a dead-game little sister, all of them ready to travel anywhere. Mom and dad owned an RV business--doomed from the start by the Arab Oil Embargo--but they got to drive a new, outlandish rig each year, and each year dragged the kids to a zillion sundry scenic points north, south, east, west (those mythical family trips particularly precious to those who grew up without them). Winegardner remembered all that, and as his own youth began to pass, as he got out of college, slid into graduate school, commenced to romance a nice girl named Laura; as he saw the winged chariot of adulthood hurrying near, he longed for one last jaunt, one grand tour of the U.S.A.

As bride-to-be Laura plans their wedding--with, perhaps, some trepidation, since the summer before, Winegardner had changed his mind--our narrator asks for one last fling before settling down. Laura (a saint) says yes. Winegardner persuades an old buddy, a philosopher-king named Bob Wakefield, also from Ohio, waiting now for a graduate-school poetry-fellowship to come through, to drive along: "I'd convinced Bob to take his car because mine had no radio and wasn't big enough to sleep in--each pretty essential for a two-month trip on a $500 budget. I couldn't spare any more than that, not with an August honeymoon to pay for, along with the consequent, real world debts to come."

Bob's car is a very temperamental 1968 Chevy Impala that its owner loves almost more than life itself: "El Basurero, a lovely name for an unlovely thing. Having decided that the vehicle of any quest must have a name, Bob settled for this, which he claimed was Spanish for either "the garbage heap or the garbage man. . . . "

Peripatetic Partners

These peripatetic partners set out to explore America from Bryan to Gatlinburg to New Orleans--so they can check out Bourbon Street--then on over to Graceland--Elvis Presley's home--then on up to Chicago, and out west to Central City, Colo., and thence to Tuscon, Ariz., and on to the dubious glamour of Las Vegas, the tawdry seductions of Venice, Calif., and finally the apotheosis of amusements, Disneyland.

Their trip turns out to be a kind of honeymoon in itself, the love ceased with lower-Middle America. Bob and Mark scorn Las Vegas: "I just figured this out. Las Vegas is prefab fun for adults who lack the imagination to put together a coherent vacation. . . . It's like, vacant adults are forever absolved of the responsibility of having to create their own wild time. Vegas has done it for them."

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