Review by Ian Keogh
Bernard Chambaz is a writer with some pedigree. With a decade of poetry and essay collections behind him, in 1992 L’Abre de vies (The Tree of Lives) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt for first novel. It accumulates to some literary weight. Chambaz doesn’t date his American road trip, but cultivates a timeless air to it, just as it begins in timeless fashion with a guy being dumped by a girl. What might be read into her chosen method of dumping him by text an hour before he was due to start the New York marathon? We never discover. Chambaz decides to forgo the marathon and instead drown his sorrows in a bar, there conceiving the trip that sparks this graphic novel, by motorcycle the width of the USA east to west on the Lincoln Highway. It’s the longer and lesser known alternative to Route 66, and he reserves a Shadow 750cc online.
His journey diary is a series of small observations about those places he travels through, at most three pages per location, while a map at the back pinpoints those locations along the route. Apart from Gettysburg. Some comments are sardonic, noting Philadelphia as where the Declaration of Independence was signed, but on the day he was there a stadium was packed with 20,000 people watching a chicken wing eating contest. Other comments refer to Chambaz’s own experiences, needing the Shadow retuned, or riding a short spell with a guy named Nat, but the vast majority of pages are lists of town names along with their specialities.
Artist Barroux is likely to be polarising. There’s detail to his looseness, providing impressionistic sketches of small American cities, then applying a grey watercolour wash of assorted densities. This works well in depicting bad weather, but his people are smudged or outlined, with strange noses and vacant stares. Occasional full page illustrations are accompanied by quotes from Abraham Lincoln. These quotes are thoughtful and interesting, but serve to underline that an award winning writer’s considerations about what he’s seeing are no pithier than those of your mate down the pub. One of interest is the repetition of how American place names rarely match the expectation they engender. No-one knows if there’s a memorial to La Fayette in Fayetteville, the rapids are unseen in Cedar Rapids, and the Eagles long ago dismissed Paradise. Would the same apply in France?
Occasionally Chambaz toys with his audience, claiming to have been born in 1976, which would mean his first poetry collection was published when he was seven, but generally fails to engage. We know why he’s making the trip, but there’s little emotional connection beyond that, Chambaz declining to offer any thoughts on his personal life beyond a succession of women met along the way. It’s as if he has to reinforce his desirability after the shock of being dumped. Most of 750cc Down Lincoln Highway could be anyone’s travelogue, and even though it’s moderately priced by NBM, it has little to offer.