view_column Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America by Thomas E. Kennedy

by Walter Cummins

Published in Issue No. 137 ~ October, 2008

At a time of economic collapse and political failure, many Americans are bewildered by the upheaval of values and identity – who we are as a people, what has shaped us, and what lies ahead. Although they are not meant as social or political analysis, the six essays in Thomas E. Kennedy’s Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America may provide more profound insights than theoretical speculations by the official pundits. These imaginative evocations of people, landscapes, history, and personal experience offer vivid revelations of what it means to live in the United States.

Tom Kennedy enjoys a unique perspective for writing about America. He has spent half his life in Europe, primarily Denmark, and has traveled throughout the world. But he retains his American citizenship and makes frequent trips back to the U.S., staying in close contact with family and his many friends in this country. This international context enriches his observations. His writer’s voice, his eye for the exact detail, and sense of craft make these essays works of literature, not just journalistic observations.

Because of my long friendship and collaborations with Tom Kennedy, I can’t pretend to be an objective reviewer. I knew several of these essays while they were in progress and a few even before they were written. But rather than recluse myself from talking about the book, I accepted the invitation to comment. The quality of the essays need no defense. Five were nominated for Pushcart Prizes, three receiving honorable mention and one reprinted in New American Essays. Kennedy also has won, for another essay, the 2008 National Magazine Award. That’s in addition to the many stories, novels, reviews, translations, and more that have made him a significant writer. Consider what I have to say here an appreciation rather than an evaluation.

The title essay, “Riding the Dog,” is a masterpiece for its depiction of the profound chasm of class, income, and education in America. The dog is a Greyhound bus, and the people who ride it are there because they cannot afford plane fares or car travel. Some of the men have served jail time, some of the passengers lack teeth or jobs, some are physical wrecks, some literally confused as to where they are, especially a young man named Marvin, just out of the prison he entered at sixteen, constantly needing reassurance that he is on the right bus to his wife and two young daughters he “loves…to death.” All desperate for some breaks, living hand to mouth, they exist in a very different cultural world from the author. Kennedy becomes Marvin’s guide, getting him to his destination, where Marvin rides off in the crowded family Ford and Kennedy joins waiting friends in the “redolent black leather seat” of a Mercedes SUV.

In the Savannah bus station, Kennedy thinks of names from the world he knows, people who have lived in that city – Conrad Aiken, Johnny Mercer, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King, Julliette Gordon Low. Passing signs for Paris Island, his memories turn to writers who served in the Marines and to the legacy of Vietnam. Yet the effect is not superiority over the others on the bus for their ignorance, but rather empathy. Their lives matter. Their human needs and wants transcend their informational limitations.

“In the Dark,” a tale of coping with the New York blackout of August 2004 is much funnier, at least in parts, especially Kennedy’s fierce search for a flashlight for his climb to a room on the 21st floor of the rundown Hotel Carter, but also his brief encounters with an Estonian exchange student, an Irish barmaid, a cabdriver of indeterminate origins, and others maneuvering through the dark. But poignant and disturbing is the refusal of a Plaza Hotel doorman named Washington to serve a glass of water to the thirsty child of a young woman of color who has carried her daughter for a 100-block walk.

“The Bridge Back to Queens,” at its core an homage to Kennedy’s father, is alive with memories of a personal and a neighborhood past, the elders all gone now, the shops replaced by the businesses of other ethnic groups, ubi sunt the essay’s mantra. As in the other essays, Kennedy enriches the piece with references to writers and musicians, particularly those who lived in Queens – Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Simon & Garfunkel – but mainly John Cheever as written about by his daughter Susan, who often walked with him to the middle of the Queensboro Bridge and who is honored by her in a way Kennedy wishes he could honor his father. But, of course, he has done that in this essay.

Kennedy’s involvement with the writers who have informed and even changed his life serves as the primary subject of “Land Where Our Fathers Wrote,” the description of the walk through Manhattan to the one-time homes of famous authors, some memorialized by plaques, others who should be – Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummins, Theodore Dreiser, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ted Joans, O. Henry, Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry, Gregory Corso, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, and many others, including the long list of those who drank and left copies of their books in Chumley’s bar on Bedford Street. Emma Lazarus lived at 18 East 10th Street, and her words – “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – are probably better known in the world than those of any of the others, though possibly not Bob Dylan, who gave voice to upheavals of an earlier decade.

In “Bailing Out in Peoria,” Kennedy reveals his failure to complete a cross-country bicycle ride to San Francisco in 1967, after dropping out of City College, justified by the many writers who didn’t have college degrees – Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger, Kerouac. An equally strong motivation is his desire to leave the borough of Queens and the ghost of his recently dead father. With his unlikely traveling partner, a tough ex-jock and NRA member named Nick, a man in great shape for cycling, Kennedy agonizes up hills, trembles through packs of snarling mutts, and sleeps in a tent pitched in mud. Mixed with these physical tortures are mental tortures, haunting memories of his father’s failures. In Peoria, Kennedy gives up – sells his bike and hitchhikes to a disappointing San Francisco, taking a bus back to New York the next morning. His own failure, the quitting, lies inside him “like a wound.” Though the essay reveals an intensely personal story, it is emblematic of the failure of dreams in America, the inability to pass through “the golden door” promised by Emma Lazarus.

In “Life in Another Language,” the concluding essay, political and cultural comparison becomes the overt subject, life in America compared with life in Denmark. The essay begins with a litany of American weaknesses – its racism, its death penalty, its homophobia, its violence, its narrow-minded legacy. Yet Kennedy also criticizes the country he now lives in – growing intolerance of immigrants, xenophobia, right-wing government. Still, its long-tradition of openness, its free higher education and free medical care that justify the high taxes, and its self-irony and “humanistic view of life make Denmark for Kennedy his country of preference: “I don’t think I could bear to leave Copenhagen for more than the few visits I make to the States each year.”

While every reader of Riding the Dog might not make the same choice, all will come away with a deeper comprehension of life in this country by sharing the experiences and vision of one very talented writer with the power to tell us what it means to be an American.

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Walter Cummins is Editor Emeritus of The Literary Review and is a Core Faculty Member of the Fairleigh Dickinson University low residency MFA in Creative Writing program.