‘Life is a Wheel’: writing and riding across America
Bruce Weber’s “Life is a Wheel,” a memoir of his bike ride across America, soars when he writes about riding but dives when he detours into his personal life.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Life is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America’
Scribner, 352 pp., $26
New York Times reporter Bruce Weber has been writing obits for that paper since 2008 — those of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and baseball slugger Ralph Kiner are among his more recent. So, amid the deaths Weber covers full-time, it’s easy to applaud his affirmation of life in the grueling bicycle journey he took in 2011, at age 57, from Astoria, Ore., to New York, N.Y., totaling 4,122.2 miles, even if he’s repeating a similar trip he took in 1993, and also wrote about for the paper.
It’s an extraordinary accomplishment under any circumstances, but why is Weber’s tale so annoying in the telling? For one, he benefits from some mighty strong tail winds: uninterrupted Times paychecks and a pretty good job awaiting his return, plus boatloads of publicity and moral support from the legions of Times readers who followed the blog he wrote along the way, a blog he reprints in large chunks here. But that might only be envy from a reviewer whose frequent, unpaid, unblogged bike rides from Wallingford to South Seattle never get the plaudits he thinks they deserve.
More to the point, in describing a trip so ripe with narrative possibilities, Weber is maddeningly off-point, shoehorning somewhere in eastern North Dakota a 37-page account of a bike trip he made in Vietnam in 1995, ruminating over a relationship with an ex-girlfriend that ended in 1998 (!), and telling us way more than we need to know about his new girlfriend.
That the lovesick Weber pines to the sound of his new girlfriend’s name, Jan, is fine; that he tells us he does is maybe not so fine, as when he visits a tourist center in North Dakota: “The attendant, a woman named Jan (sigh) ...” Sigh?
It was a blog reader named Terence who nailed the most salient criticism: “As a cyclist, I understand the need to dwell on the bike, your poor legs, and lack of energy, plus the traffic; but what’s compelling in your tale is the land and the people. Do more of that; your style soars and you whine less — it’s great.”
Terence is right. Weber is far more compelling when the subject isn’t so much about him. For example, this description of his ride along the Potomac River on Oct. 16: “After a stretch of wet weather, the sky was deep blue and the air was polished clear, the kind of fall day when the world presents itself in high def. A stiff, cleansing wind was blowing from the southwest, whistling and occasionally roaring through the treetops but rarely affecting the ride — I was protected by the woods. The Potomac, winding gracefully and companionably alongside me with the autumn sun angling off its surface, was simply beautiful.”
There are many such lovely passages, and solid information about the logistics and wear-and-tear of such an expedition, but not nearly enough to balance Weber’s self-concern: “Okay, I’ll say it: Hurray for me!” he writes upon the completion of his journey. “I feel, for the moment at least, extraordinary.”
There’s talk of another such trip, this time with the new girlfriend. To which one might humbly offer this advice: How about keeping that one to yourselves?
Alan Moores is a Seattle-based writer and editor.