James Carroll

The faces of a country

By James Carroll
April 11, 2011

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FOR THE last month, I have been on the road in America. Every few years, I go here, there, and everywhere to introduce a completed book to readers — the so-called book tour. It combines multiple meetings with strangers and endless hours of solitary introspection that heightens perception. I have taken this sojourn more than a dozen times over the decades, but this year it feels different. Let me say right off that, for all this spring’s troubling headlines (and universally stubborn weather), something very good is at work in this country today.

Through airplane windows, I caught glimpses of the high Rockies, flooded rivers, glistening bays, strip-mined hillsides, clear-cut forests, faint green hues of just-sprouting wheat fields, tidy rows of tract houses looking ever so much like cemetery headstones, golf course fairways clawing the landscape, and vast parking lots jammed with little toy cars. Down to earth, it was all airports, lecture halls, bookstores, taxicabs, coffee shops, and hotel bars with flat-screen television sets above the bottles of Jim Beam and Dewars.

From the NCAA Sweet 16 to the Final Four, every cocktail lounge was a sports bar, with watchers arching eyebrows at one another as underdog three-pointers went swish. Tiger Woods was back, and Barry Bonds was gone. I saw Cleveland high-fiving itself over the stalled Red Sox, and, always, NASCAR racers streaking around their ovals. The ubiquitous television screen is the still point of the turning nation.

But sports was not all. News reports heard and seen in snatches provided the constant backdrop to my journey, and they seemed ever grim: from violence in Libya and Ivory Coast, to yet another earthquake in Japan, to the showdown over shutdown in Washington. Republicans seemed to have moved from miserliness to misanthropy. Democrats seemed weak. But what really snagged attention on CNN airport broadcasts were bulletins that air traffic controllers were falling asleep at their radar screens — and news that certain jets seemed prone to break open in flight. Such were the agitated signals of a worried people.

I personally engaged hundreds of Americans of all kinds, with their differences necessarily on display. Veiled women, men in yarmulkes, robed choristers, collared clergy, college students in sweats and flip flops. My book is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,’’ and because it takes up politically charged religious questions, my discussion partners’ identities as Christians, Jews, Muslims — as Hindu and Buddhist, too, and as variously defined people of no faith — have been to the point. The Red State/Blue State divide has inevitably shown itself, as has the gulf between religiously conservative and liberal. Yes, contention and hard questions. But, always courtesy, and true listening. I have witnessed profound interfaith exchanges transcending the broad assumption that some issues are taboo. Openness marked deep conversation from coast-to-coast.

More superficial encounters, too, have been impressive, whether with hotel desk clerks, security personnel at airport checkpoints, harried flight attendants, or taxi-drivers wrangling with unwanted credit card machines. Here is the amazing thing. Overwhelmingly, present-day Americans are positively minded. You can see it in their faces. In their instinctive kindness. In the way, universally, they open doors for you, or gesture you first out of the elevator. Nowhere is our splendid diversity more dramatically manifest than in queues, whether shoeless at the X-ray machines, caffeine-deprived at Starbucks, weary at baggage carousels, or idling at freeway on-ramps. People in those lines, as I inched forward with them, were invariably patient, courteous, respectful. Yes, I was surprised.

For all the due anguish about education in this country, it speaks volumes that bookstores seem more like cultural centers than ever. Borders is on the way out, and so are a legion of small independents. Electronic publishing is changing text and thought. But everywhere I went, surviving booksellers were themselves so happily earnest about their trade that it was impossible not to catch the spirit. The purchase of a book, as I witnessed it again and again, is an act beyond commerce. The book remains. If its author is generously received, that is in fact the reading public’s own self-affirmation. Americans are smart and good. A wanderer in my own land, discovering it anew, I have never felt more at home.

James Carroll’s columns appear regularly in the Globe.