Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid
By Joshua Safran
Hyperion, 288 pages, $24.99
Among the American contributions to world literature, perhaps least appreciated is the genre of automotive horror. To be sure, we are acknowledged to have invented the road trip, which was prophesied by Huck Finn and Lewis and Clark (whose rivers yearn to be highways) and shifted into full gear in the work of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Miles of paper have been spent analyzing our carefree, gas-guzzling quests and their values: freedom, wilderness, the ecstatic individual who sings America. We tend to pass over the ghosts that haunt this national romance, even though our nightmares are littered with murderous cars (Stephen King novels alone account for several), crazed motel managers, and buses which explode if they go below 50 miles per hour. Exactly what do these vehicular demons say about American freedom?
“Free Spirit,” Joshua Safran’s memoir of a nomadic childhood in the 1970s and 80s, raises this question with particular force in its depiction of a countercultural road trip that alternates between being pastoral and horrible; charming and harrowing. The book opens in Skagit County, Wash., with 10-year-old Josh in a car driven by Leopoldo, a “former Central American guerilla fighter,” who, ascending a mountain in the dark, is trying “to break land speed records in our rundown Chevy.” Leopoldo has been drinking and as he drives he curses both the CIA and Claudia, his romantic partner and Josh’s mother. The opening pages hint at the violence and abuse that are the subject of the book’s second half, but the episode ends after Claudia and Josh abandon Leopoldo and the Chevy, in a moment of oddly reverential quiet, with “the two of us wandering the silent forest beyond the perimeter of human civilization.”
As Josh notes, he and his mother frequently found themselves resting in peaceful wilds between abrupt, violent journeys. In Josh’s first decade, we follow them as they tour the Pacific Northwest. Claudia is an anti-Vietnam activist, mural painter, frequenter of witch covens; Josh’s biological father, a surfer and musician with whom Josh later spends one surprisingly dull summer in New York, barely enters the narrative otherwise. Claudia and Josh flee San Francisco because of the collapse of the revolutionary Left, fears of a nuclear winter, and rising rents. Josh’s mother, who seems unable to hold a job or finish a degree, is reminiscent of one of those people Kerouac extolled in “On The Road,” who are “desirous of everything at the same time” and who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” She organizes a parade against nuclear weapons, flits between communes and between lovers, disdains schools, and raises Josh on Howard Zinn, Marge Piercy and Narnia.
Because her movements trace what remains of the ’60s counterculture, Josh’s travels with his mother catalogue that period’s dregs. For one freeloading and manipulative boyfriend, a critique of private property has atrophied into venial theft. Likewise, a marijuana-themed Rainbow Gathering dissolves into a muddy orgy after a hard rain washes away the tents. Josh wittily skewers his mother’s pretensions, sometimes a little too wittily; when a memoir’s narrator turns out to always have been right, a reader tends to feel suspicious. Still, though Josh is drawn to elementary school and normal, civilized life, he finds it stale and authoritarian. Constantly neglected and rarely cared for, he cannot quite condemn his childhood. His repeated re-enchantment, whether with a short-lived pet goat or a black drumming circle at the Rainbow Gathering, makes “Free Spirit” an enthusiastic, bounding picaresque.