THE ROUTES OF MAN by Ted Conover

Book Quote:

“Watching roads can be a way to look at history, to measure human progress and limitation.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (FEB 15, 2010)

Ted Conover won a National Book Critics Circle award for his last work of non-fiction, Newjack, a narrative about the Sing Sing prison. One can imagine that after such an endeavor he went after freedom—the essence of it personified by a wide stretch of empty road.

In his new book, The Routes of Man, Conover takes a look at different roads all across the world and takes us along for the ride.

The book is fascinating not just because of the diversity of places represented but because each chapter so beautifully depicts a road’s role in one of the many of the problems facing humanity today: war, disease, pollution, rampant development.

Our first expedition traces the path of mahogany from New York to its origin in the rainforests of Peru. Most of it is set in Peru where Conover takes a precarious ride along small roads through the Andes mountains to a logging camp deep in the forest. Conover shows how the country’s residents stand to both lose and gain from a more permanent, wider road that would cut through the forest and facilitate more commerce between Peru and its economic powerhouse neighbor, Brazil.

Conover is a master of narrative and this and other chapters in the book are full of wonderful descriptions and interesting asides. His talent is on full display here. Never to miss the smallest of details, he finds humor and irony in the most unexpected of places. For example, the monument to biodiversity in the state of Madre de Dios in Peru, he notes, is made of concrete.

Conover’s travels also take him into remote regions in other parts of the world. He visits Zanskar, a part of Ladakh—the eastern, Buddhist part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Zanskaris are cut off from the rest of the world from October to May when it snows but once the ice settles, young Zanskaris travel the frozen road called the chaddar and leave for higher studies at a set time every year. It’s a rite of passage described beautifully by Conover. Here too the Indian government has promised a more permanent road in to Zanskar—it’s of vital geopolitical importance to India, Zanskar being very close to the border with Pakistan.

The best chapter in The Routes of Man details the place of roads in war—a never-ending one. Conover visits the Israel-Palestine border and sees the situation through the eyes of both Israeli soldiers who have to staff checkpoints daily and the Palestinians who have to suffer these indignities every day. One hears news about the region practically every day but this impartial account of the war especially in its daily humdrum, is spectacular. The Routes of Man is worth reading just for this segment alone.

His description of a walk through an Israeli checkpoint is moving: “As I fell into step with the dozens of people heading past the guard tower, past concrete road dividers spray-painted with graffiti (“Israel Out”), past the cameras mounted atop poles, toward a low structure ahead with a corrugated roof, a red light next to the single lane for cars, and cyclone fencing and loops of razor wire on the sides, Fares’s reluctance to leave the town made more sense: this was starting to feel like prison.”

The road as vector for disease is described by Conover’s visit to Kenya—he travels the truck routes infamous as facilitating the rapid spread of AIDS in the country.

Each chapter in the book makes for great reading; Conover’s latest is a fascinating read.

The problem with The Routes of Man is its subtitle: “How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.” It’s misleading and worse, promises a grander historical treatment of the subject than what we get. This is not to say that The Routes of Man is a mediocre read—it’s actually a fantastic one. But too often, some chapters feel like extremely good travelogues—and just that. It’s not quite what the subtitle promises. Conover does try in brief asides to inject some more heft into the book by discussing other road-related topics—like the history of Broadway Street in New York and the evolution of speed—but these don’t work. Their objective—to stitch the overall project together—is too transparent.

“One of the great challenges in writing a book about roads is to avoid the inadvertent use of road metaphors,” Conover writes. Yet you wish he would actually make these connections more evident. The last two chapters describe a driving expedition undertaken by nouveau riche in China and an ambulance driving around the roads of one of the starkest cities in the world—Lagos, Nigeria.

It is these two chapters, especially, that feel removed from the larger essence that Conover is trying to communicate. The chapter on China shows how money is turning the country around and how the disposable income many urban Chinese now have is giving them new kinds of opportunities for recreation—including a “self-driving” (as opposed to being driven by a chauffeur) trip. Yes, this chapter too takes place mostly on the road but the overall effect is disjointed—the lines between the new roads and the new China made out less clearly.

This same problem applies to the last chapter in Lagos, Nigeria. Again, it’s a compelling travelogue but exactly how the road is the central feature in the story—it’s hard to tell.

But The Routes of Man should be read for the wonderful narrative Conover injects into all his travels. The diversity of the places chosen makes it even more fun to go along for the ride.

Two yeas ago, our family decided to vacation in a small town at the foothills of the Himalayas—Mussoorie. Our hotel room was so high up in the mountains that it was regularly invaded by clouds that swept in when we left the doors open. On our way back down to the plains, we took a taxi down an extremely narrow, ribbon-like road that in most places didn’t have any barriers separating our tiny car from the steep vertical drops. I was convinced we were soon going to meet our end. As our crazy cabbie took one more sharp turn around one more precarious hairpin bend we suddenly came across a huge sign: “Speed Thrills but Kills.” The irony of the situation was not lost on any of us.

Looking back, I think the sign that Conover saw in Lagos, Nigeria, would have driven home the point better: Drive Soft—Life Get No Duplicate.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 3 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (February 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AMAZON PAGE: The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More “road” books:

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt

China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford


February 15, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  Â· Posted in: China, India-Pakistan, Israel, Non-fiction, South America, y Award Winning Author

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