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Ted Conover puts himself in harm's way and tells us about it. That's his way as a writer. He leads us into zones adjacent to American-normal -- awkward, exciting places for us, but places that are routine for those he encounters. His chronicles are reliably fascinating and elegant. They reflect our tameness as much as they do the hardiness he encounters. In past books, he's joined hoboes riding the rails, slunk across the Mexican border with coyotes, taxied the wealthy around Aspen, Colo., and guarded prisoners at Sing Sing.
In "The Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today," he's chosen some hard roads to travel. He started these journeys right after he hung up his jailer's uniform: "Roads are in so many ways the opposite of prison. Once I was finished wearing that uniform, I wanted to get back on them."
He sussed out six passages through hazardous, changing ground around the globe, and along each route discovered an accomplice or two who knew the ropes. His ultimate interests are not in macadam, steep grades or hairpin turns, although he covers those. Reversing the usual, Conover has made roads his vehicle. He rides them along routes that reflect public longing and corporate need.
He drives in a logging truck from the Peruvian mountains to the seashore, hauling a load of rainforest mahogany destined for Park Avenue. He joins the newly capitalistic in a driving club, strangers who tour for days, celebrating their passage from poverty to auto-culture in China by driving and driving.
He treks down a steep iced-over river, from an isolated Ladakhi village to a small city with kids headed out for school. He transits Africa in a convoy whose drivers spread material goods, and AIDS for good measure. Each of these proves "worth a side trip," and cumulatively they reveal the invisible work of the world and remind the conventional tourist that there's fervent life beyond the global shield of Hyatts and Hiltons.
Conover's roads are populated with moving characters. His narration is wide-eyed and canny, in a voice so plain-spoken and disarming it carries us right in to share his crisp descriptions and gleeful astonishment with what's common to others along his strange routes. "Every road," he begins, "is a story of Striving: for profit, for victory in battle, for discovery and adventure, for survival and growth, or simply for livability. Each path reflects our desire to move and connect."
Conover's uncompromising curiosity and relish of the revealing, gritty adventures of daily life are instructions in joie de vivre. We join the world in transit, along the routes that carry comforts our way and spread the mixed blessing of modernity, changing everything even as we sit and read about it.
Mark Kramer was founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism and writer-in-residence at Boston University and Smith College. He lives in Massachusetts.