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Brit journalist mines the legacy of itchy-footed America

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Unflattering as it is to admit, my experience has found that British people in America invariably know more about this country than we do. Perhaps it's part of a post-colonial-partum obsession, or maybe we're just more interested in things other than lying back and thinking of Tony Blair.

So leave it to a British writer, one Richard Grant, to sink his teeth into the heart of the American impulse to keep on trucking (or trekking, or tramping). The romance of the open road has been romanticized in everything from the novels of John Dos Passos and Jack Kerouac to The Muppet Movie.

American Nomads is a thorough and fascinating exploration of this American ethos that takes the forms of straight history, profiles of contemporary nomads, and occasional autobiography.

Grant argues that feeling at home while moving, and unsettled while settled, is a personality trait rather than a pathology. It's an interesting assertion, though it doesn't quite square with Grant's musings on the toll this peripatetic lifestyle has taken on his own relationships.

The book kicks off with a contrast between European society, where the process of taming the land (and thus its nomadic potential) was dealt with thousands of years ago, and the American West, where the fight is barely over. The process of becoming smitten with the road, he claims, is one of Europeans "being conquered by America, by the immensity of its geography and the nomadic cultures they found here."

Thankfully, Grant is not of the Kevin Costner School of Native Romanticization. Instead, he explores the interplay between the cultures. Europeans gave natives diseases and appropriated their land, but they also introduced them to horsemanship, which tribes like the Comanches mastered above and beyond European standards and used it to forge an empire of their own.

Grant reveals how the nomadic freedom of many tribes was something that influenced Euro-Americans. The book includes profiles of men who so thoroughly took to nomadic livelihoods (hunting, prospecting, etc.) that "civilized" society had lost all its appeal upon their return. One such apostate was 19th-century trapper Joe Walker. When asked why he preferred mountain life to the city he replied, "Because white people are too damn mean."

Grant shines the brightest when embedded with his colorful assortment of latter-day nomads. In one memorable chapter, he travels with a gaggle of rodeo cowboys whose lives are a haze of rodeo sleaze. In a particularly gross, though evidently not exceptional, romp, one cowboy pilfers a sex toy that his posse of five proceeds to take turns upon in a roadside motel.

Grant proves himself to be a careful reporter with a knack for finding colorful subjects and putting their lives within a cultural and historical context. He logs time with people many would be more than happy to dismiss: racist bums, righteous trustafarians and belligerent gutter punks.

And then there's just some hilarious cultural reporting, like the all-too-brief portrait of a community of RV-bound retirees, aka "Geritol gypsies."

American Nomads is not flawless; chapter headings more descriptive than a numeral and maybe, oh, an index would have been nice. Also, Grant's romantic autobiography blurts into these pages with little rhyme or reason. These are forgivable offenses, however, because even when one chapter tires, the next picks up with a new roadside culture.

Perhaps it takes an outsider to write this kind of book, someone less inhibited by homegrown borders of race, region or social status. It's hard to say how much Grant's foreignness helped him. No doubt the big open country was something this one-time denizen of a dreary London council flat didn't take for granted. But Grant is a defacto citizen of the transient republic now, and one can only hope he'll continue to chronicle his fellow travelers.

-- John Dicker

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American Nomads by Richard Grant (Grove Press: New York) $24/hardcover

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