My review of...
Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways
Sarabande Books, 2015
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At first glance Riley Hanick’s Three Kinds of Motion appears to promise a history. “Kerouac, Pollock, and the making of American highways.” Huh, you think to yourself as you read the cover, were those three things connected? I guess they overlapped—the U.S., the twentieth century, modernization—but what did they have to do with each other? You pick up the book expecting its pages to serve as your map, a travel guide that will lead you on a clear journey with chapter titles as signposts along the way and citations pointing down side roads if you decide to take a personal detour. By the time you’ve followed Hanick’s logic step by step from front to back, you’ll have a clearer understanding of his subjects.
If you flip to the back cover, you’ll find hints that Three Kinds is something other than history, or maybe something more than history: it’s a “book-length essay” of “breathtaking ingenuity,” a “powerful meditation” and “a heady experience.” Perhaps most significantly, although the 250 pages of material conclude with another ten pages of densely-printed bibliography—Hanick did his research—the genre marked on the back is not NONFICTION but LITERATURE.
Speaking as someone who’s spent her share of years studying literature: yes, this book is more literary than documentary. So richly so that I could understand if an uneasy reader threw it down after about twenty pages and ranted that it was a waste of time to read Hanick’s rambling, unedited notebooks. His text reads like the stream of consciousness of someone who has researched the lives of Kerouac, Pollock, and Eisenhower, but who is still mulling things over without forcing his ideas to conform to a narrative framework. And to that frustrated reader I would say that this disorienting presentation is not evidence of a lack of editing but of a very conscientious kind of editing. Hanick deliberately rejects the hallmarks of standard histories—clear introductions and thesis statements, the chronological presentation of anecdotes, clean segues that delineate the connections between topics.
What would prompt Hanick to defy the conventions of a tried-and-true genre this way? Perhaps he was rankled by the artificiality of tidy historical accounts. Humans tend to write our histories the way we draw constellations in the stars: faced with overwhelming chaos, we apply artificial order. We can’t help it—we’re storytelling animals whose minds automatically understand events in terms of narrative arc, even if this means retrospectively conjuring motives from thin air and mentally bolstering the most tenuous connections. In our own lives this allows us to maintain relationships and function with an unbroken sense of self. But when society collectively forces this on broad networks of people who came before us, we do them an injustice by distorting their reality. Individuals who were once living flesh with real agency and inner dissonances become cardboard characters expected simply to advance the plots we already know to their anticipated conclusions.
Thus in our textbooks Dwight Eisenhower was the man destined to create an American interstate highway system that crisscrossed the nation. Jack Kerouac was the man destined to travel those roads and write a great American novel as a result. Jackson Pollock was the man destined to paint canvases with aggressive abstractions that reflected America’s modernization back unto itself.
By that logic Riley Hanick was the man destined to research these three and write about how their paths ran parallel or intersected. Except none of these individuals was destined to do any such thing, least of all Hanick.
Three Kind’s title and summaries claim that the book has just three themes, but a fourth is interwoven as well: Hanick’s own maturation from a lonely Iowan adolescent obsessed with Kerouac’s writing to an alienated twenty-something confronted with Pollock’s Mural. His passages on the development of the interstate highway system (and its main proponent, Eisenhower) seem to connect these disparate figures across time much the way “ribbons of pavement” physically link far-flung regions: these figures and regions have no obvious reason to engage with each other, but humans have forged paths for them to do so anyway. Whatever the significance of it all, if any, everything seems to come together in the loamy topsoil around Iowa City and finally to meet at the local art museum.
That back-cover blurb was right to say that “reading Riley Hanick’s account […] is a heady experience.” Hanick conveys history to us as if it’s still happening in the present, undetermined and non-linear. Unlike typical histories, this book is not a map; in fact, to map the terrain of this book would be as difficult as mapping one’s own thoughts in real time. An attempt at analysis is dizzying, but if you make it past those first twenty pages and surrender to its flow, it becomes hypnotically easy to read. So what if you don’t know where the road will lead? Neither did the first highway planners, the first drip-painters, the first cross-country hitch-hikers—and that didn’t keep them from forging ahead (or at least going along for the ride).