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Monday, April 20, 2009

Highway of Amnesia

Old folks on memory lane

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Imagine being a fly on the wall of a renegade R.V. traveling down historic Route 66. At the helm of this aging ship is John Robina, an octogenarian with Alzheimer's. His terminally ill wife, Ella, is navigating. The couple has kidnapped themselves from their grown kids and doctors, jumped (or, hobbled, as it were) into their "Leisure Seeker" camper van and headed for Disneyland.

If you can imagine enjoying this kind of experience, perhaps you'll find The Leisure Seeker (William Morrow), the follow-up to Michael Zadoorian's debut novel Second Hand, a thought-provoking tragi-comedy in the vein of the film About Schmidt. The Robinas' tour of the American Heartland and Southwest is full of nightly slide shows of vacations (and friends) long since gone, of campy travel-fare and decaying roadside kitsch. Along the way, they experience some awkward, uncomfortable senior moments as well as touching marital interchanges and a few brushes with danger of the kind that often accompany both traveling and life with an Alzheimer's patient.

Overall, The Leisure Seeker is equal parts intriguing, disturbing and sometimes annoying. While the book is billed as darkly humorous and Sedaris-esque, some readers will find Zadoorian's window into the often-ugly experience of dying quite unfunny, and the Robinas' travels dull. The most exciting scene involves an attempted robbery on a deserted stretch of 66. The Robinas get a flat tire (mysteriously, this is the only problem the couple encounters with their well-worn R.V.) and are held up by two bandits. In a moment of cool heroism, Ella defends herself and her husband and the villains run off in true Wild-West style.

Some will like the quiet company of the Robinas on this 2,300-mile journey. Others will find their companionship grating. Ella's sassy strength is, at times, endearing. She's a foul-mouthed, truth-speaking kind of lady who has taken her destiny into her own hands and won't let anyone judge her in the meantime. Despite this, it's hard not to bristle at the literary first-person narration coming from this lowbrow, leisure-seeking suburbanite from Detroit, who admits that she was always "self-conscious" about her writing skills, and yet describes scenes with such poetry it can only be the voice of the writer, Michael Zadoorian, rather than the character.

Consider this narration, in which Ella describes a scene along the highway with verbiage worthy of The Writer's Almanac: "My heart fluttering and catching, I search this aching span, waiting for it to tear itself open and reveal what I know is there: a roaring vacuum that sucks everything into it that's not nailed down." These frequent descriptions from Ella, however well crafted, are downright distracting. As a whole, character development is lacking-Ella seems to be the only standout character in the book, with all others more like caricatures.

Yet even those who find traveling with Ella and John about as pleasant as hanging out with someone else's grumpy grandparents will find this book hard to put down, wondering what kind of demise-natural or unnatural-these two dying folks will meet. And along the way, the reader will re-encounter the mid-century haunts of Route 66, will get an interesting earful of Detroit history and will, perhaps most importantly, be reminded of the distant dreams once chased by our parents and grandparents in the wake of the last worldwide economic crisis. Those dreams are now mostly dust and ashes, just like the generation that envisioned them. What we are left with, what we have moving forward, is anyone's guess.

Keep your eyes peeled for the film version of The Leisure Seeker, to be written and directed by Swede Jens Jonsson and produced by Jeffrey Sharp. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film should begin shooting this summer.

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