When we last heard from the notorious pedophile Humbert Humbert, he had died in custody in 1952 while awaiting trial for the murder of Clare Quilty and the debauchery of a prepubescent girl, Dolores Haze, better known as Lolita.
Today we remember Lolita for its then-shocking subject and the dazzling prose of Nabokov's novel -- and also for its portrait of the crass and confident America observed by Humbert and Lolita during their cross-country journeys through a daisy chain of motels.
But imagine if Humbert and Lolita were to return to the road again in 2013. What has changed since then on the American landscape? What might that tell us about whom we have become?
For the past dozen summers, I have driven back and forth from New Jersey to Montana, stopping in St. Louis along the way. It's usually a blur of motels and filling stations. But last week I took along a paperback copy of Lolita, and so Humbert and Lolita squeezed into the car with my wife and dog as we followed I-70 and I-90 west on a route approximating their trip six decades ago.
Back then, Humbert and Lolita saw a landscape cacophonously littered with Komfy Kabins, Sunset Motels, Hillcrest Courts, Park Plaza Courts and their favorites, the Functional Motels -- "clean, near, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation, insatiable illicit love." They stopped in roadside restaurants festooned with "EAT" signs and sugar-sticky counters. During their improbable itinerary they saw Bourbon Street, Carlsbad Caverns, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, fish hatcheries, cliff dwellings, and "thousands of Bear Creeks, Soda Springs, and Painted Canyons." What held all of this together was Nabokov's vision of an American culture that, for all its tourist traps and tickytack excess, was somehow unitary.
What I saw last week, in contrast, was One Nation, In Pieces -- a disaggregated country. In his important book, Age of Fracture (Harvard, 2011), Daniel Rodgers attributes this change to a breakdown in the ideas that we once lived by involving national consensus, managed markets, gender and racial identities, citizen obligation, and historical memory. If there is no common history memory, what's the point of going to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or Independence, Mo., as Humbert and Lolita did?
I began my trip on June 11 -- and encountered my first police car less than a mile from my house. Then another state trooper entering the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Another at mile 30. At mile 440, a state trooper careered by, siren blasting, lights flashing. Others were at mile 442.5 (an arrest), mile 559 (passing, lights flashing), and then at miles 610, 616, 648, and 652. By the time I arrived in Bozeman, I had seen 27 police cars in 2,500 miles, almost all making arrests or overtaking and passing me, erupting with lights and sirens, on mysterious missions of their own. When this happened, Humbert crouched down beneath the seat.
This is a nation under siege. At mile 50.6, I passed my first Army convoy of olive-green trucks at King of Prussia, Pa. Then more and more convoys... where were they going? To the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle? To an Army Reserve post? To Afghanistan? By the time we got to Montana, we'd seen military convoys in each state we passed through. One Nation, Under Arms.
Mile 175: the Blue Mountain Rest Stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Outside the fast food court is a memorial plaque for United 93, the plane that crashed into a nearby farm on 9/11. No one stops to read the plaque.
We pass Donora, Pa (Humbert points out that it's the home town of Stan Musial!), then Latrobe, Pa (Arnold Palmer!), picturesque red barns in the Pennsylvania Dutch country,developments of Monopoly-style bungalows, double-wides, casinos everywhere, Victorian farmhouses with double-hung windows that look like Bette Davis eyes. Huge cell towers loom like the alien creatures from the 1953 movie, War of the Worlds, out of scale with the built environment of telephone poles and road signs.
And the signs!
DRIVERS HANDS-FREE PHONES ONLY
PASSIONS: COUPLES ADULT SUPERSTORE
Humbert asks me if there are now Children's XXX Superstores.
He is appalled by the lack of billboard literacy.
DICK'S TOE SERVICE
Humbert wants to know if Dick has a foot fetish. I say I think he runs a service station.
When Humbert and Lolita made their trip, religious icons on the roadside were mostly confined to the South. Today there are crosses everywhere -- little white ones memorializing highway fatalities, gigantic ones like the 200' "World's Largest Cross" at the intersection of I-70 and I-57 in Effingham, Il. Humbert is baffled by this sign:
PATRIOT: PAWNS * GUNS * LOANS
"Is pawning guns patriotic?" he wants to know. Then we see this sign:
IF YOU DIE TONIGHT
HEAVEN OR HELL?
Followed by this one:
GARY'S GUN SHOP
Along the way we pass the World's Largest Steer Head, a sculpture in South Dakota. The state of South Dakota itself is a nostalgic trip for Humbert and Lolita, who had previously visited both the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell and Wall Drug Store ("America's Favorite Roadside Attraction"). But they are baffled by the profusion of strange, downmarket retail chains: Dollar Tree, Dirt Cheap, Dollar General -- and discordant political ads: DESTROY THE FUR INDUSTRY? NO HUNT * NO FISH * ECONOMIC RUIN.
We arrived in Montana unnerved by what have seen on our troubled landscape. Social change in this country rarely does us the favor of announcing itself with a fanfare as, say, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 did for the gay rights movement. The changes that matter are more likely to unfurl under the radar, unnoticed. It's like watching the moon rise or the hour hand of a clock tick; you have to look away and look back again to see the difference. And what we saw is a land where the center is not holding. And ten dead deer on the roadside.