Reviews, Vol. 3.2, June 2009
Shearsman Books, March 2009
Paperback, 100 pp., $15
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Big American Trip is deceptive. Written as a collection of postcards in a non-native voice, the slim volume packs a mighty punch, especially in its exploration of the constrictions and deceptions of, not only the expansive American dream, but also of the English language as an embodiment of something that often serves to identify borders and boundaries. Peet, author of The Nines and founding editor of Tarpaulin Sky Press, delivers the unexpected with this provocative work from Shearsman Books.
Postcards themselves are a sort of archetype of Americana, conveying a sense of the vastness of the United States and the potential inherent within its confines. Native Americans, Peet indirectly implies, are not the only Americans to be marginalized. The postcards are addressed to governing bodies as diverse as the Weyerhauser Company, oil companies, the Washington State Raspberry Commission or sometimes simply, “To Whom it May Concern.”
Some cards are directed to “aliens.” The card that begins, “Says the alien Jamake Highwater,” states,
It is not simply a matter of language…
It is possible to translate with fair
accuracy from one language to another
without losing too much of the original
meaning. But there are no methods
by which we can translate a mentality
and its alien ideas.
The language sometimes falters—though, of course, intentionally so. The limited potential of life in small-town America, both for English speakers and immigrants, brings up questions of what America is, both to its so-called natives, and to those who arrive seeking opportunity.
Postcards boast in typical ad-copy fashion of scenic routes, natural wonders, and “small town pleasures such as a 1930s soda fountain, antique shops, or just a shady bench to watch the world go by.” The handwriting on the cards presents a point of view less picturesque, but rather more realistic, and in languages as varied as the scenic attractions themselves. One proclaims, “This is the shock and awe: It is again for me alone to find no union.” The reader can imagine turning the card over to find a beautiful scene set in fractured afternoon light; the other side tells the true story in fractured language.
Peet delivers a missive that is as timely now as it has been for centuries. The fact that it still is absolutely necessary and relevant speaks to the true potential this country holds, which has more to do with the need and opportunity for growth and change than it does with any already-present, idealized greatness. Part of the brilliance of Big American Trip is in its delivery—Peet invokes a voice that never has the need to try to cast any sense of persuasion. It is, in its broken English, as native as the rest of us caught in the tide and flux of the melting pot.