Foreword by Reed Baird
Professor, American Thought and Language
Michigan State University
Having previously heard Ken Wachsberger read excerpts from his Odyssey of Henry the Hitchhiker, I knew on settling in to read the book that I could look forward to an amusing picaresque novel, one that would delight and entertain. On reading the book in two sittings (it reads easily), however, I realized that I had just experienced a significant American novel, one that in various ways brings into the present the great theme of our best literature, the possibility of being a free spirit in America. Most immediately, the book recalls Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and, of course, Jack Kerouac's On the Road; moreover, its themes and writing style evoke the spirit of Whitman's Song of Myself. The most direct comparison, though, is to On the Road, a marvelous paean to transcendence and freedom which one finds in Wachsberger's book as well. But it seems to me that Wachsberger's book is at the same time more grounded in social reality, more obviously working out of a backdrop of traditional values.
Wachsberger's book, then, "has everything," for its picaresque form enables the author, the central consciousness that sees, experiences, reflects, describes, even philosophizes, to weave a richly patterned tapestry; it provides a range of detailed information about life on the road from the vicissitudes of "getting busted" in Texas to sketches of the characters Henry meets as a footloose youth away from the security of home, job and family; it provides ongoing social, economic and political commentary in a way that's utterly free of ideological cant; it offers humor that's gently ironic and somehow compassionately critical of whatever or whomever obstructs "the Flow," a humor that's informed by an overaching affection for humanity; it marvelously catches the spirit of the '60's counterculture with none of the period's clichés; and it reflects, finally, an informal and altogether sophisticated "metaphysic" of what may be an emerging cultural paradigm. To elaborate a bit on this last point, what most characterizes Wachsberger's angle of vision is that it transcends abstract and simplistic either/or categories; like all really outstanding writers, Wachsberger knows through his experience of the world that reality is complex and intricate and yet is in some way holistically unified.
Finally, a brief note on the natural grace of Wachsberger's style. Literary critics who examine his work in the future will probably evoke the "long line" of Whitman, Kerouac and Ginsberg, the long, easy flowing sentences that often are poetic in their alliteration, rhyming and imagery. Wachsberger's prose, then, is a pleasure for readers who love language.
All of which is to say that I will be using the novel in at least two of my courses: "The Quest for Meaning in America" and "America; The Dream and The Reality." The novel obviously has a special appeal for young people, especially today's anxious students who surely could benefit from awareness of alternative modes of perceiving and Being, modes that allow one greater access to the energy of "the Flow," the Dharma, the Way Things Really Are.
Wachsberger's book, then, is marvelous; it can instruct, inform, delight and inspire. America needs this book, just as it once needed Look Homeward Angel and On the Road. America, for all its barbarisms, is still humankind's last best hope, as Henry the Hitchhiker knows and unpretentiously conveys in a voice that's free of cant, cliché and sentimentality.