The Peterbilt Journals

Alan Haworth

Read November 2003

This had the potential to be so very interesting.

Trucking is a canonically American experience. A significant percentage of America's goods travel by truck, both within the country and across the borders with Canada and Mexico. Truckers support trade but not the competition in their profession that that trade brings. Car drivers often despise and dread trucks even as they speed to the nearest mall to buy the very goods those trucks delivered. Truckers represent a certain mythical freedom ("Keep on truckin'...") even as they reflect absence from the mythologized homestead. In short, they neatly capture many an emotional contradiction.

Back in 1995, Kathi and I rented a truck to drive cross-country (from Texas to New Jersey) and back. Not only did traveling in that vehicle change the road experience, so did stopping. For one thing we had to find motels that could accommodate a (modest-sized) moving truck. We also stopped a lot at truck stops.

Truck stops were a fascinating other world. They were little flourescent-and-neon cities. The food was uniformly dreadful (and not just a bit unhealthy), the clothes were cheap, the products ranged from shabby to tacky... and yet it held a strange charm. The drivers themselves were mostly indifferent to us, but when we did need help, they were happy to assist.

Haworth's book promised a great deal. At the very outset, Haworth tells us that he was a recent college English graduate. I didn't know what to expect exactly, but sending a guerilla reporter into this parallel culture could only be fun. Bring a little philosophy, some astute observation, the odd literary reference and the deft verbal touch to an institution so wrapped up in mythology and contradiction, and how could you miss?

Haworth, sadly, brings none of these attributes to his work. The writing is pedestrian, often flawed. The articles lack punch; some even lack a point. Many narrate an episode that you assume is building up to a point, until the essay abruptly ends and you realize there was no point. Indeed, most of the book is utterly pedestrian, punctuated by periodic reminders from the author that he has an college degree in English. Goodness knows he needs to remind us, because the writing certainly doesn't.

Amidst this wreck are a few nuggets. Haworth tells us about the pressure that the just-in-time inventory trends of the 1990s put on trucking, and ascribes some of the perilous driving on the roads to it. He describes the pressures (but also professionalism) of Walmart. He exposes us to the treatment of fruit at supermarkets and to reasons for unnecessarily high food costs (think unions). He gives us a peek at gay truckers. But in the end, the book is too self-absorbed, too anecdotal, not introspective, and never comes close to delivering on the promise of the back cover: "The trucking industry is much different from people's perceptions, and this novel blows all of those perceptions to pieces".