The treads on the tires of the road memoir appear to be going bald -- at least if you judge by James Morgan's "The Distance to the Moon." Inspired by the vibrant literature of the American road -- a body of work that has included tales of wide-eyed, proto-slacker escapism ("On the Road"), of mysticism and self-discovery ("Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), of drug-addled catharsis ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), of recovery from divorce ("Blue Highways") and even of canine friendship ("Travels With Charley") -- Morgan hit the interstates for 47 days to type up his own take: the road trip as midlife crisis.
Morgan's situation is contrived but full of possibility. He's 51 when the book begins, an accomplished magazine editor and the author of "If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House," as well as the hired pen on "Leading With My Heart," the autobiography of Virginia Kelley, President Clinton's mom. He's also settled in Little Rock, Ark., with a wife and kids. But he's restless, and he finds himself yearning to peel out in the dream car of his teens, the silver Porsche Spyder that James Dean died in. To top it off, he's been reading cultural critics who blame the automobile for hollowing out the American city and diminishing our sense of community. So he gives himself an assignment: Get a Porsche (the car company sets him up with a loaner -- a pre-release silver Boxster); drive across the USA (he departs from Miami, heads northwest to the Pacific, then turns south on Highway 1, ending up in Torrance, Calif.); learn what you can about Americans and their cars; and write about it.
A sharp reporter, Morgan makes sure to take in such odd, eerie roadside attractions as Carhenge, in Northport, Neb., a re-creation of Stonehenge with trashed autos stuck in the earth. And he digs up plenty of great trivia, including some about early attempts at motoring safety. (Soon after Ford rolled out the Model T, he reports, city folk in Michigan, "resenting the scaring of horses and danger to pedestrians, passed ridiculous ordinances, such as one requiring 'every self-propelled vehicle moving on the highway to be preceded by "a man of mature age," walking not less than ten rods or not more than twenty rods in advance.'") Tracking down Francis C. "Frank" Turner, one of the leaders of the interstate highway project in the 1950s, proves rewarding, too. Turner, it turns out, ended up with a home on the most heavily traveled road in Arlington, Va. "We had a good laugh at the irony," Morgan writes. "'I can't complain about traffic,' Turner said. 'I put triple windows on my house. The noise doesn't bother me anymore.'"
For all these amusing bits, however, the book is wildly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying. The biggest problem is that Morgan has a penchant for introducing themes he doesn't follow up on. He tells us, for example, of fights he's having with his wife, and he notes the tension that this trip in a "pussy machine" is putting on their marriage. Not only is that revealing too much not to follow through; the author doesn't even seem to realize that he has turned the survival of his marriage into one of the book's principal sources of suspense.
Worse, his analysis of car culture, which often amounts to clumsy summaries of other books, doesn't offer much that's new, and it feels forced -- as if he'd kept thinking, "What this chapter lacks is a passage about what it all means." As a result, too many passages come across sounding like someone explaining a joke. Most annoying of all is Morgan's habit of tying up each chapter with a profound little verbal bow that hits the ear like a voice-over in an old newsreel. ("But despite our lofty expectations, the fact is that the road is long and not always smooth. A lot can go wrong in the distance to the moon.")
Some readers, especially baby boomers, may forgive his exposition and smile over his tales of the family Rambler (the "Beige Bed") and other such nostalgia. And at least one reminiscence, Morgan's own "American Graffiti" moment, shows him capable of stirring prose. He probably wrote the book too fast -- an irony that he may, like Frank Turner, come to have a good laugh about someday. More than once, he returns to novelist Milan Kundera's contention that all of us speed -- in our cars and in our lives -- in order to forget.