It’s 1968. Joe Mack is hitchiking through Europe. And I don’t care. Sorry Joe. I’m sure you’re a nice guy and all; and you don’t write badly. In fact, Mack has quite a pleasant turn of phrase; there are some real purple patches in his prose.
‘The early morning sun is a bright gold ball burning in a slice of sky above the horizon, and below thick clouds. I turn so its rays strike my back. Its warmth feels wonderful. Sunshine makes me stronger. Today is a good day and around the corner is a good breakfast’. That, for example, is a decent chunk of writing.
It’s not fantastic, but it’s sun-baked, lean, clean, streamlined, spare, hard-boiled American writing. Its debt to Bukowski, Kerouac, Chandler and Fante is clear but, I think, deliberately so: a passage that could be lifted straight from Ask the Dust or Playback is a powerful reminder that, however deep Mack gets into Europe, and however disillusioned he becomes with his homeland as he does so, he can never escape America.
So that’s not only good writing; it’s clever writing. Authorial ability is not Joe Mack’s big problem. His big problem is that he does nothing to prove that his book is anything other than a vanity project. There’s a note on the back cover that reminds the reader to ‘remember he’s twenty-one’. Big deal. I’m twenty-one. More importantly, so were hundreds, even thousands of Americans who made the same journeys as Mack across Europe in the late sixties.
It was a momentous time, and the shared experience of this group of Americans living a crosscultural life in the golden age of counterculture is deserving of some serious historical documentation.
There’s simply nothing to suggest that Mack’s story alone, told with a personal pride that frequently spills into smugness, is worth anything on its own. Mack ends up seeming as annoyingly wide-eyed, as irritatingly oblivious to his own falsely presumed sense of his own specialness, as any Cornmarket tourist.