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Books to Go

Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land

November 10, 1996|JOHN MUNCIE

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre (Berkley Books, $12, paperback)

Mike McIntyre had worked at newspapers for more than a decade when he contracted a bad case of journalist's disease. This is a malady that makes reporters, who flit from subject to subject, feel unconnected and uninvolved with the real world. At the same time, McIntyre says, he began to confront a variety of long-held fears: fear of taking chances, fear of commitment, fear of death, fear of life.

McIntyre had a drastic cure for these ills. He shucked his comfy, noncommittal existence to hitchhike across the country without a dime, depending on chance and strangers for transportation, food and lodging. For symbolic purposes his goal was Cape Fear, N.C. Along the way he hoped to learn something about America and the sorry state of his own soul.

At one of his earlier newspaper jobs, McIntyre and I worked together. Though young and relatively inexperienced then, he was already a conscientious reporter and superb writer. As "Kindness of Strangers" shows, he has not regressed.

The book sparkles with descriptive gems--a post office in South Dakota is "so small, you have to step outside to lick a stamp"; a gathering is filled with "folks who aren't ashamed to tell a stranger how they get down on their praying bones every night"--but its strength is McIntyre's vulnerability and the extraordinary empathy this engenders. Something about McIntyre and his quest makes people want to feed him, pray for him, reveal their innermost torments to him. Most of the 82 people who pick him up are kind; some are so generous a reader could weep for relief that such Americans exist.

However, McIntyre's prescription for mal du psyche, while initially entertaining, ultimately seems contrived. While he carried no wallet on his trip, he did have a book in mind from the start (Why is it that the cure for journalist's disease so seldom involves quitting journalism?) and when the adventure ended after less than two months, he got on a jet and flew back to San Francisco.

Nor does McIntyre have any deep insights into the people he met or the country he traversed. In the end, he seems to be his own worst fear: just another journalist, flitting from subject to subject, unconnected and uninvolved.

Quick trips:

THE BEST IN TENT CAMPING: Southern California by Bill Mai (Menasha Ridge Press, $13.95, paperback, maps). Fifty campgrounds in four geographic zones; coast, desert, and northern and southern Sierras. Each campground is rated (one to five stars) on the basis of beauty, site privacy, site spaciousness, quiet, security and cleanliness. Also includes driving directions from Los Angeles and descriptions of the surrounding countryside.

RED TILES, BLUE SKIES: More Tales of Santa Barbara edited by Steven Gilbar (John Daniel and Co., $12.95, paperback). Chronological collection of 27 stories, poems and reminiscences involving the city and surrounding area. Selections begin with an entry from the diary of Pedro Font, a Franciscan monk who accompanied Juan Bautista de Anza on his 18th century colonizing trip through California, and ends with modern essayists and novelists. It includes an excerpt from Newton Thornburg's "Cutter and Bone," which was made into the 1981 film, "Cutter's Way." "Red Tiles" follows an earlier collection by Gilbar titled, "Tales of Santa Barbara."

WHERE THE TRAINS ARE! by Heather R. Taylor (Prima Publishing, $16.95, paperback). Railroad attractions, from museums to special train excursions to hotel rooms in converted cabooses, listed by state in the U.S. and Canada.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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