Uneasy Rider

The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today BY Ted Conover. Knopf. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.

The cover of The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today

If ever you have reason to step out of an airport in Peru, Kenya, or another of the places in Ted Conover’s latest book of reportage, you will preserve your life by following one simple procedure. Ignore the scrum of eager cab drivers at the door and instead proceed to the edge of the parking lot. Find the driver with the fewest teeth, the most gray hairs, and the thickest glasses. He’s your man: Anyone who has survived to AARP age with these handicaps, on third-world roads, must have an abundance of caution, or perhaps just a jalopy that can’t reach the hundred-mile-per-hour standard of Peruvian and Kenyan pistes.

The ancient wisdom against driving outside North America and Europe evidently never reached Conover, perhaps because it was in the same misplaced parcel of common sense that warns against becoming a prison guard at Sing Sing, as he did for Newjack (2000). In The Routes of Man, Conover recounts a loose-knit series of road adventures in some of the places most conducive to a meaningless death in a crash of twisted metal and shattered glass. In East Africa and Peru, he hitches with truckers. In China, he rides with nouveau-middle-class pleasure motorists who have little concept of road safety. In Ladakh, his fellow travelers are Buddhist villagers who walk along a frozen river and whose settlement the Indian highway system is only just now reaching.

The narratives are compelling, and at their best they illuminate the lives of those sad souls who ply the commercial trucking routes of the least developed continents. Like Paul Theroux, who in The Great Railway Bazaar sought trains and found passengers, Conover seeks roads and finds drivers. These must be some of the most pitiful people on earth. Many have pointed out that the grinding poverty of crowded African cities will be the fate of millions in the next decades, but Conover’s portraits suggest that the logistical nomads who connect these cities have a fortune even worse than those people trapped inside them. Conover’s first trip on East African roads was in the early 1990s. “Over eleven years,” he writes, “six of the twelve men I’d gotten to know had died, and at least one more was quite ill,” almost certainly with aids. The truckers he accompanies in Peru seem to be faring considerably better, but they, too, take preposterous risks, such as illegally ferrying dozens of passengers on a full diesel tanker— essentially, Conover says, “a highly explosive bus.”

These are not romantic vignettes of life on the road. There is no cherry pie at roadside diners, no ’67 Chevy with its top down and the wind in your hair, no glory of worlds discovered and boundaries crossed, and (rare for an American writer) very little in the way of fetishization of the automobile. In that way Conover’s writing is depressing, as well as an accurate reflection of the grim world he has chosen as his subject and of the mixed blessing the roads bring to the people on them. African roads circulated HIV (called “slow puncture” in droll trucker slang) from deep in the continent to the eastern coast and beyond, and the ones in Peru’s interior are helping loggers denude the forests of their mahogany. Conover startles himself by agreeing with the most reactionary and antimodern elements of the societies he studies. “You didn’t need to be terribly worldly,” he writes, “to appreciate that the cost of a new road might be considerable in terms of lost serenity, lost culture, lost paradise.” I was reminded of the Afghans who asked me to tell the US government to stop constructing serviceable roadways, because they would just allow buses to travel fast enough to kill everyone aboard when they crashed, as they inevitably would, and do.

The book’s faults mostly follow from its broad theme and structure. Indeed, so loose is the organizing principle that two of the chapters, including the best, have little to do with roads. Conover’s portrait of Lagos, Africa’s Pandemonium, succeeds in making the city more enticing than forbidding, a place worthy of its reputation for chaos but also wonderful in its own way, with rich sights and characters all among the madness. Even the chapter’s title, a quote from a Nigerian road sign, captures the appealing gallows poetry of West African English: DRIVE SOFT, the sign says, LIFE NO GET DUPLICATE.

Mostly, though, one wishes for an argument that establishes these new trucking routes as something important for reasons greater than the merely commercial and perhaps even adds them to our inventory of metaphor, like the Appian Way or Route 66. The roads here appear instead to be incidental to one another and to the stories they serve. They are long and terrible footnotes in the history of our subduing and destroying the planet, but footnotes nonetheless.

Mythos is a tall order, of course. But it is one to which Conover aspires in his epigraph from Tolkien, which suggests that all roads essentially are the same, or at least more alike than not. The impression given elsewhere is quite the opposite. The frozen-footed Ladakhi villagers tread their road for the same economic reasons the Peruvian loggers drive theirs, and feel the same ambivalence about the ravaging of their patrimony that comes with increased access. But the contrasts are much more striking: the cold air of Shangri-La and the malarial torpor of the Amazon, the spiritual atmosphere of the former and the rapacious one of the latter. Far from resembling one winding road through the featureless slum of the future, the routes Conover describes feel like an extended, colorful, frequently awful market stretching to forever, sometimes cold and sometimes steaming, always with dangers that put travelers far beyond the protection of any seat belt.

Graeme Wood is a writer in Obo, Central African Republic.