Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Review: Off the Road

Author: Jack Hitt
# of pages: 255
Original Publication Date: 1994
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
My Copy: First Simon & Schuster Paperbacks edition 2005

So I'm currently more than a little obsessed with the whole Camino to Santiago thing (see my post about it HERE) and as such I've taken it upon myself to read as many books on the subject as I can get my hands on (please don't look in my Amazon shopping cart...) I figured I might as well share some of my "research" with you lovely internet-dwellers out there.

Firstly, there are dozens - probably hundreds - of books about the Camino out there. From the Shirley Maclaine experience to the one written by a couple of nonfiction writers to the one written by a priest (which I've started reading!), there's no shortage of travelogues, memoirs, guidebooks and the like on the market. If you want to read an architect's experience of the Camino, or a housewife's experience of the Camino, it's available. My reasons for starting with this particular account of the road to Santiago is because it is this book that loosely inspired the Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez film called, The Way. The author even makes a kind of cameo character appearance as feisty travel writer Jack, from Ireland. This character is much more likeable than the author himself, in my opinion. More on that later.

This book was originally published in 1994, so it's a teensy bit dated and I have a feeling that conditions along the Camino have changed and improved a bit in the last 20 years, especially given the Camino's rise in popularity after the release of Sheen and Estevez's film and the Holy Year in 2010. In any case, the idea of dropping your entire life to go for a very long walk still shines through. Because walking across northern Spain takes you "out of time" in a way, the many years since publication don't really affect the narrative experience.

I didn't care much for the beginning - he talked far too much about architecture and it really didn't feel relevant to beginning his pilgrimage. He also didn't have very positive things to say about religion, let alone Catholicism. Basically, I felt he was incredibly close-minded. He began by talking about authenticity and metaphor and literalism. He seemed to think that pilgrimage is about getting back to the truest sense of the word before religious metaphors got tangled up in politics and journalism and came to mean nothing at all. It honestly felt like a lot of pedantic backpedaling; it was like he was trying to say that he wasn't going on pilgrimage for religious reasons or to "find God," heavens no! He was purely intellectual, strictly going for a very long walk to connect with himself and unplug from CNN and see what his brain did when it wasn't inundated with media and hyper-connectivity. It felt seriously inauthentic. 

At first I didn't like the way the narrative of his walking was broken up. It's split into 11 chapters with an introduction and an afterward. Each of the chapters revolves around his experiences in a particular region or portion of the Camino: Saint-Jean Pied de Port, Torres del Rio, Leon, and Arzua to name a few. I was initially displeased because I wanted more detail, more day-to-day grind of walking the road, not the highlights version. Upon reflection, however, it makes sense. He wrote this book for commercial publication and yes, there's plenty of slogging through wheat fields in a lighting storm and blisters and lack of adequate shower facilities, but if there was much more of that the average reader would be bored to tears. He did a good job of giving you enough of the daily grind without bogging you down in it, and there were the usual small epiphanies and roadside gems described.

What I feel he did best was describing his fellow pilgrims. He painted incredibly vivid pictures of the Flemish film crew and Claudy and the donkey, Jesus the gypsy, the Welsh family, the Spanish girls, and the Italian pilgrim who spoke no language well. He illustrated the pack mentality versus "every man for himself" and how that dynamic changed over different parts of the Camino. Hostel workers, priests, Spanish widows, and Basque shepherds all came to life on the pages and both welcomed and challenged the pilgrims. All of these people were real, engaging, and complex. There were a few times when the author was unkind or reduced people to stereotypes, but more often than not he allowed the characters to develop and the reader got to see the other side of them.

My main problem with the entire book was the lack of real epiphany. All through the book I kept waiting for the author to learn something - about himself, about the world, about religion, about God - but it never happened. He even made this lack of "lesson learning" a  good thing at the end, in the afterword. He acts like St. James isn't the saint to go to if you're looking for epiphany because St. James was so much simpler than that when depicted as a pilgrim. I disagree. I feel like walking almost 500 miles on pilgrimage has to change you or all you've done is taken a really long walk through northern Spain, practically devoid of meaning. Perhaps I'm naive and still dew-eyed with the belief that God speaks to us when we can listen - on a dirt road in the middle of the Spanish Meseta - but what I felt most for this writer was pity that he was so cynical and almost actively avoiding any kind of experience of epiphany. Maybe my impression is incorrect or somehow inaccurate or even biased because of the author's largely negative view of Catholic Christianity (I'm willing to admit I could be wrong about this) but I sincerely hope that when it comes to my turn to make this journey I have a much more positive experience than he did.

I thought his redemptive moment would be when he entered the cathedral before the statue of St. James.  The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote of that space, "Before this Portico, one must pray in one way or another: one cannot make literature." Here, the author drops to his knees and approaches St. James in gratitude - as is custom for all pilgrims, kings and peasants alike. He seems to be on the verge of the epiphany I waited so long for, but then... 

"Even here, minutes away from completing my pilgrimage, an air of fraudulence lingers. I had expected a purity, a clarifying wind of revelation. Instead the tourists unsheathe their cameras and illuminate my already soiled epiphany with the strobe of flashes.  This clenched face and furrowed brow now bowing before the statue of James - is this mine, a performance, or both?" (238-239)

ARGHHHHH! SO close and then the cop-out and blaming the tourists for ruining his could-be epiphany. Jackass.

His one moment of redemption, however, came on the last page. He had been in Santiago for a week and had been showered, shaved, and changed into new, clean clothes, and returned to the cathedral for the last time. Instead of being lost in his cynicism, he joined the line of people waiting to kneel at the statue of St. James to pray. So many people have placed their hands beneath the saint's feet that the marble has actually developed the indentation of a perfectly shaped human hand. Now, cleaned up and dressed as a normal person - no longer garbed and clearly marked as a pilgrim, he says, "One cannot make literature here. When my time comes, I put my hand into the stone and pray."  Not the religious epiphany or grand conclusion I had hoped for, but it's better than nothing. The closest thing we get to the lesson learned is in the afterword where he says, "In the midst of all that work, wrangling the details of life stripped down to that essence [of bare necessities], some tiny thing appears. It might be a funny line, a moment, a chance encounter, a though that gives you the power to see yourself as you really are, there in that awkward surreal place." He speaks to my dissatisfaction with his conclusions in the afterword, saying that if I want revelations or epiphanies I should read a war journal. Frankly, I think he kind of missed the point.

Some quotes I underlined:

From page 36:
The road itself is... among our oldest tropes. The obvious metaphors click by. The high road and the low, the long and winding, lonesome, royal, open, private, the road to hell, tobacco, crooked, straight and narrow.  There is the road stretching into infinity, bordered by lacy mists, favored by sentimental poets.  There is the more dignified road of Mr. Frost.  There is, every four years, the road to the White House. There is the right road. And then there is the road that concerns me most today, the wrong road.
 Immediately following on page 37:
Then again, maybe I should calm down.
 You think?

From page 43:
What the modern pilgrim is exiled from is not a place but velocity. I haven't left the world of the city; I have left the realm of the car. What distinguishes me is not that I am out of town but that I am on foot.  My predecessors were outcasts because they left the security of the village. I have left the world of technology and speed.
Are you beginning to see what I mean about his obsession with unpacking metaphors and getting back to the truest sense of the meaning of pilgrimage?

From page 182:
Is this pilgrimage a sacred task or is it trumped-up tourism?
From page 244:
A thousand years ago, from this belief [in God] but also from crude political calculation, financial desperation, and military necessity, the pilgrimage emerged as a journey to truth. What one finds on the road may not be what god wrought, but it is what man wrought, and, for a time, it was the best we could do.
So to summarize a long and winding post, there were things about this book that I liked, and plenty of things about it I had problems with. I found the author's voice pedantic, cynical, and generally obnoxious, but every once-in-a-while he had something interesting to say. 

Recommended Reading Level: Adult. Not in an R-rated sense but in the sense that this guy used a lot of big words (unnecessarily, too) that challenged my post-college brain a bit. Also there is talk of sex and drug use and flippant remarks that adolescents may not be able to put into context.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars - I'd like to be able to give this 3 whole stars, but the author's attitude really prohibits it. I didn't find this book difficult to read, but it certainly does not have a place on my "favorite books this year" shelf. It was a good glimpse of what the daily grind on the Camino is like but I don't think I'll be recommending it to people who aren't actively planning to go on pilgrimage. Even then I'll recommend it with heavy caveats.

Who Should Read It: People who actively plan to make pilgrimage to Santiago and are unsure of their religious beliefs. People who like writers from Harper's Magazine and GQ. People who are interested in historical Spanish architecture. People who like travelogues with no particular theme. People who don't look for revelations in their everyday life.

I'm already reading more books about the Camino so hopefully I'll find one or two that are good and will have better recommendations for you.

For more of the books I've loved, hated, and reviewed, look HERE. Or check out the Book Reviews tab at the top of the page.

Happy Reading,


*Note: All text used in quotes are from the 2005 Simon&Schuster paperback edition of Off the Road by Jack Hitt and these quotes are copyrighted by him and Simon & Schuster. These quotations are used for review purposes only. I am not now and never have been an agent of Simon & Schuster publishing or any of its imprints or affiliates, nor am I any acquaintance of Mr. Hitt. This is an unpaid, unsolicited review.*


  1. In spite of not being able to stand the author you have stuck with the book. Bravo! I hope when you make the pilgrimage in 2 years you blog along the way. It will be interesting to read your account. I am going to check out Netflex got that movie.

    1. That's the plan for sure - although I'm not sure how good my internet access will be when I'm in Spain... Netflix should still have it - be advised: I cried at several points in the movie. It was SO much better than this book.

  2. LOL! It's Jack's book! Sounds like he is much more likable in the movie. Perhaps that was Sheen's Christian charity or wishful thinking. Anyhow, it's sad that so many people, Jack included, believe that God's just going to hit them over the head with an epiphany or miracle, or strong feeling of belief. But you gotta ask for it Jack, or at least have your heart open a little bit to hear Him. So thankful you wrote this review though! I won't be reading this book. ;)

    1. It is! If you've seen the movie, he's *much* more likeable. Jack completely didn't behave as though his heart or head were open to being inspired or moved by God, it was so closed off most of the time. Definitely don't waste your time with this book. The new one I'm reading about the Camino is written by a priest who walked it and already (10 pages in) the writing is poetic and beautiful and open to the mysteries of the Way without being sappy or pretentious. Thanks for the comment-love! :)


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