Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Fear of Modernity
By Roxanne Fequiere
Once, my mother and I traveled down to Florida to sit with a sick relative. I was twelve years old then; I remember distinctly because it was the first time I’d ever been on a plane. As we rumbled down the runway, my ever-present preadolescent angst dissolved for a brief moment as I reached for my mother’s hand. This new experience of going airborne felt unnecessarily risky, accustomed as I was to the steady simplicity of traveling by car. When we touched down at our destination, we headed straight to the nearest rent-a-car kiosk. For a moment, order was restored.
And then, as we were trying to make our way back to our family friend’s home late one afternoon at the tail end of a day trip, we discovered that we were hopelessly lost. I’d always been a backseat passenger, never a co-pilot. My mother used her Qualcomm cell phone to cast around for directions from our hosts, but that was about all that our in-vehicle technology could do for us in the year 2000. We pulled into a gas station to buy some maps. Minutes later, flustered and anxious, my mother announced that she was going to ask for help.
My heart sank as she shut the door and marched over to a white male motorist filling up his tank a few feet away. I’d thought she was going to ask the cashier at the convenience store. My instincts told me that she had made an unwise direction by informing a strange man with his own car (which could trail ours, if he so chose) that the two of us were lost. My concerns only intensified when their brief exchange turned into an extended conversation. “Go to the bathroom now and buy whatever snacks you need for the ride,” she said when she finally returned to the car.
“I don’t have to go…” I began, before she cut me off. I’d better try, she said, because the ride back to our friend’s house was going to take two hours and we weren’t going to stop until we got there. Thank God she’d spoken to that man, and not someone else, she said. He’d told her that the areas through which we needed to drive to get where we were going were no place for a black woman and her young daughter to be driving alone after dark—or any black folks, for that matter. He’d given her incredibly detailed directions, along with instructions to fill up our gas tank and his phone number to verify that we’d made it back safely. For the first time, it occurred to me that car travel was perhaps infinitely more risky than air travel.
As I read Ginger Strand’s Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, I experienced that same heavy, fearsome feeling that took root beneath my skin that night as my mother and I drove through the night. From the national news coverage of Charles Starkweather’s killing spree to the moment a young girl is introduced to the concept of a sundown town, I suppose there’s a moment at which every American sees a dark shadow cast over the once-gleaming prospect of the open road.
Strand distills this notion into six harrowing and informative chapters, describing the ways in which the The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956’s sprawling interstate system made easy marks out of those who would use the anonymity of the road to wreak havoc and enact violence. She also lays out a story of the ways in which the corporate greed that spurred the push for a modern highway system punished those who had the misfortune to live in the way of its proposed path—and those who ended up on the wrong side of the road once the asphalt cooled, the victims of “the economics of more.” Some those victims were the very ones perpetrating the horrific crimes described in the book.
Behind as I was on my reading heading into the last quarter of the year, I started reading Killer on the Road at the tail end of October during what downtime I could find on my honeymoon, a two-week tour of Brazil. I found some of that downtime during long car rides between destinations: Rio de Janeiro to Búzios and back, Salvador to Praia do Forte and back. Jair Bolsonaro had been elected president during our first few nights in Rio; everyone we talked politics with seemed utterly exhausted and resigned to some amount of corruption, whether they’d voted for him or despised him. They only hoped that some of the dirty money floating around would somehow benefit the people; maybe improve the schools or clean up the cities.
As we traveled along Brazil’s impressive highway system—a lot of which had taken much longer than promised to come to fruition, our guides informed us—it seemed as if perhaps some of Strand’s observations were hardly a uniquely American phenomenon. Near the end of the book, she actually describes instances of massive roadway programs around the world, the increased inequality that these projects speed along, and the instances of highway-related violence that seem to crop up in tandem with the completion of the project. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, it seems that our endless quest for modernity has a tendency to make monsters of us, and it’s a symptom for which there is no ready antidote. For now, it seems all we can do is lock our doors and hope for the best.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.