on March 7, 2000
First of all, if you enjoy the writings of William Least Heat-Moon [as do I], then by all means, buy this book. That having been said, you should also beware-this is NOT the wandering, see-where-the-wind-takes-me journey of Blue Highways. This is an obsession. This is a mission, a quest; a race to arrive at fixed destination by a fixed route before a fixed time, and devil take the hindmost. Moon [I'll just call him "Moon", if that's okay] decided long ago that he wanted to cross the country by navigable rivers, using as few portages as possible. Fine & dandy. The country looks a lot different from the river than it does from the highway, and such a journey would be a fine companion piece to Blue Highways. The problem is: in order to cross the country via river in a single season, timing the journey to take advantage of the snowmelt of the western mountains is vital. This is where the journey [and the book] lose their way. The Moon of Blue Highways always had time to talk, to investigate, to explore [I recall one episode of speaking to a man in Tennessee for over an hour, all while stopped in the middle of a seldom-used road]. The Moon of River Horse has no room for such frivolities. Those people who appear in River Horse are described by a thumbnail sketch, pumped for information about the route ahead, and then sent upon their way. Moon is determined to complete his journey-but most of the time forgets to take the journey. There are passages which describe the lazy, dialed-down atmosphere of life on the river; but there are far too many passages which feel like a salesman trying to make airline connections. Almost twenty years after first reading Blue Highways, those people and images still resonate in my mind. Two months after reading River Horse, I simply wonder which one of us has changed the most. The book is very readable, and a must for Moon fans; but be aware that it is deeply flawed.
Of Heat-Moon's previous travel epics, I have not read *PrairyErth* but I did greatly enjoy *Blue Highways* and where that book is lean and to the point, *River-Horse* is big and bloated. Heat-Moon has pulled off a real accomplishment here, travelling across America east-to-west almost entirely in small boats. But you barely notice his rewarding revelations on the acts of traveling and soul searching, the state of America's natural places, and the people he meets. All of these are sunk under a never-ending wave of waterlogged writing.
Heat-Moon can't stop piling on his heavy-handed style, with a flood of arcane words that will make you run exasperated to your dictionary. Some examples include jactitation, brummagem, atraxia, atrabilious, genetrix, and lacustrene. Before you recommend use of a thesaurus to the lazy reader, these plodding words actually serve little purpose other than to illustrate Heat-Moon's use of a word-of-the-day calendar on his desk. Then there's soggy prose like "inspiration flowed like the sky" or "in my moustache I can smell river like a sweetly scented woman from night before." This is all showing off at best, with little reward to the increasingly weary reader.
Worst of all is Heat-Moon's impersonal treatment of his crew during the voyage. He combines seven different first-mates (one of whom was a woman) into an anonymous entity called Pilotis that has the same personality throughout the voyage. The same goes for at least two different people called merely Photographer, plus a succession of faceless folk with names like Reporter or Professor. Heat-Moon spends more time naming and describing passersby who he met for five minutes, than these valuable companions who he spent thousands of miles with, and who saved his voyage (and possibly his life) many times. Heat-Moon apparently meant this de-personalization as some sort of literary method to make a grand point about his narrative, but what that point should be he never explains. The result is a disservice to his many valuable companions, while he tries to draw all the attention to himself. This book is a potentially tremendous travelogue that could be fascinating but is only tedious and waterlogged. Heat-Moon's greatest strength is his achievements as a traveler, while his writing is a lesser strength. Unfortunately, this book wastes all its energy on the wrong strength.
on June 4, 2000
As a Kansan, rivers have played relatively little role in my life, although I have enjoyed the occasional canoe trip down the Cottonwood and the K-State/KU canoe race on the Kaw. However, William Least Heat-Moon's earlier books fascinated me with their combination of travelogue, social history and natural history, and I expected the same from "River Horse." I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I enjoyed this book much more than "PrairyErth" even though I grew up only a few miles north of Chase County, KS, the subject of the earlier book. Although he is constantly impelled to move onward and westward for fear (unfounded mostly) of having too little water in the West, Heat-Moon still takes plenty of time to learn and relate the histories of many of the small river towns he finds along the way. This is the sort of personal, anecdotal history at which he excels and which I enjoy. Unlike "Blue Highways," this book did not necessarily make me want to attempt the trip myself--my lack of familiarity with boats and rivers would be a major hurdle! However, it did send me looking for more information on many of the sites and I have my own list of places I now hope to visit as a result of reading this book. In a way, I feel some of the same need for hurry as Heat-Moon did, though, thanks to the insane amount of control large farming and corporate America have over what are supposed to be public lands and waterways. Who knows but that by the time I can visit some of these areas, they may be flooded by a new dam or eroded to nothingness by thousands of cattle hooves? Some may not appreciate the political bent of this book, but I find it understandable that if a person loves an area enough to row, push and carry a canoe through it, then he should speak up for it in every way possible. Get in touch with the America too few of us appreciate by reading "River Horse"!
on November 28, 1999
I loved Blue Highways and Prairyerth, but found River-Horse to be just okay. Every night when I picked up the book to read, I briefly considered putting it back down and starting something else. But I did finish it, and am probably the richer for it.
I most appreciated the descriptions of the country as seen from the water and, yes, I guarantee that all readers will begin fantasizing about a long river cruise. The interweave of local, national, and natural history that is Least Heat Moon's hallmark was again very enjoyable.
So what's my problem? The author's admission near the very end of his narrative that this river voyage has probably cost him another marriage (I believe it is near the beginning of Blue Highways that we learn he has just separated from an earlier wife) made me wonder if I'd found the source of my ambivalence about the book. Clearly, there was an untold story here, and maybe more fueled his voyage than a simple desire to "mess about in boats" with a bunch of learned good old boys across the length of the nation. It's not that I'd have preferred page after page of detail about his personal problems, but more a feeling that he'd not been particularly honest with the reader. It made me wonder if, unlike many "travel" writers, Least Heat Moon voyages to avoid self discovery.
on December 3, 1999
Most of us, after a certain point past adulthood, become interested in the idea of our lives as journeys. At that point, many of us look back, sometimes for a long time, before we begin to even look forward, let alone move that way. That interest is what compelled me to read River-Horse. I expected to find another Blue Highways, another chronical, not just of travels, but of self-discovery. I wasn't disappointed.
Not that Heat-Moon speaks with self-absorption or uses the book to detail his soul-searching or even clearly reveals what his quest was for, other than to satisfy his thirst for a river voyage. Very briefly he talks about what prompted the journey and what it meant to him; as he puts it, late in his story, I believed the long rivering necessary to my continuance as a man. Mostly, though, he simply shares his journey and what he saw and felt and thought and learned along the way. The result is a book that can reach out, engage, and finally enfold a reader on many levels.
One of these levels includes his sketches of the people who fed, sheltered, advised, amused, helped, and hindered him on his voyage. His accounts of them in their homes, inns, cafes, pubs, bars and other habitats are reason enough to read the book. Another level is the author's own wonder and outrage at the changes wrought upon the rivers by man since Lewis and Clark first explored them, the braiding of their currents and the warping of their natural courses by dam-builders and the unending streams of garbage tossed into them. And his frequent references to the chronicles of explorers and rivermen who saw the same waters in other centuries provide a level of historical underpinning.
For me personally, a couple of additional levels evolved. As a native Missourian living near the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, I wanted to hear what Heat-Moon, another Missourian, had to say about them. Then too, the trim, white-haired man holding forth at a local book-signing didn't strike me as a likely pilot of the journey described in River-Horse (I could see him in a study sipping tea or lecturing in a classroom, but not trying to moor a small watercraft in flood-riled currents), and yet there he was, casually describing his 5,000-mile trip. I guess you could say I'd become curious about the levels present in the author as well as in his book.
And finally, perhaps the best level on which to enjoy this book is simply the way Heat-Moon tells his story - like the master craftsman he is - with honesty, a keen sense of humor, and simultaneous amusement and wonder at life in general.
on November 10, 1999
As one who loves to read/hear of travels thru the heart of this great country, I found River-Horse to be a great "vacation book." As soon as I saw it , I had to have it to read on my week at the beach. I was not disappointed. Least Heat-Moon rewards the reader with great sentences of descriptive musings of his travels by water from coast-to-coast. Those who have read Blue Highways won't be disappointed.
on July 17, 2001
Having very much enjoyed listening to Barrett Whitener read P Nichols's Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, I was looking forward to listening to his reading of River-Horse. Unfortunately, the style of William Least Heat-Moon is long-winded and trite. His humor (or is it attempted wit?)is forced--especially in the failed witticisms with which he inevitably ends each chapter. Some of his iconographs are interesting, and the historical background he provides can even be gripping. However, listening to him describe his own life and experiences in his pretentious and overblown prose (did he write the whole thing with the thesaurus open in front of him?) made me shut off the tape recorder more than once.
on March 22, 2000
That's exactly what the detractors of "Moon's" latest odyssey should do. This is exactly what Moon seems to be doing in this book, lightening up in his own, personal words. This is the first of his books that I've read and it's got me wanting to get his others. While I did find some parts to drag on a bit and make me want to learn speed reading, overall I enjoyed what I learned about the history of these rivers and lakes. From the way he uses, and sometimes abuses, the english language, and his perspectives of what's happening around him, I can tell this guy's a real character. I'd love to share a bit of "River Relief" with him. Along with this, I would have enjoyed to travel along with him every watery step of the way.
on October 16, 2001
Least-Heat Moon's earlier books, Blue Highways and Prairy Erth, were terrific. This one is painful. It is self-indulgent, as were his earlier works in parts -- but without the wonderfully clean and accurate observations on humankind that make the other two must-reads. This is a book that seems to have been written to say "look at me, look at how witty and urbane I am." Unfortunately, he falls flat, and comes across as merely pompous. Save your money -- give this one a pass.
on October 31, 2001
This is a wonderful idea for a book, and I approached it with much enthusiasm. While there were several entertaining passages, "River-Horse" was a disappointment.
Mr. Heat-Moon attempts to paint this hundred-day tour as some deep, metaphysical journey, a search for himself in America's Heartland. It reads more like the story of a guy with commitment problems, whose mid-life crisis includes a boat, some beer, a couple of buddies and a crazy dream. The writing, as others have mentioned, frequently veers into pretension; much of the book reads like some paper prepared by a 43 year old grad student, bent on proving that he's just as smart as any of his whippersnapper classmates.
Heat-Moon's faithful companion, Pilotis, is actually a compilation of seven men and women with whom he shared various parts of this journey. Serving as a punning Greek chorus to Mr. Heat-Moon's Ahab, Pilotis does offer some moments of levity. Mr. Heat-Moon, comes off as dour, self-righteous, and pendantic: in the immortal words of Mark Twain, he's 'chloroform in print.'
I wonder what Bill Bryson, or better yet, Robert Sullivan could have done with this material.