One of the 20th century's most central innovations is also one of its least heralded. The pop-top can? The remote control? No, the humble driveway. In his new book, Vermont journalist and National Public Radio essayist Tim Brookes describes the driveway as the nail in the coffin of traditional communities. While the old-time front porch encouraged neighborliness, he writes, the driveway that replaced it "assumes that you don't want to talk to passers-by, and that there aren't any anyway, as they're all in their cars." Indispensable handmaidens of the automobile, driveways both help mobilize and isolate us.
The history of the driveway is a big, meaty topic, and Brookes only grazes on it in this collection of bite-sized essays, many of which originally appeared in Vermont periodicals or were heard on NPR's "Sunday Weekend Edition." The topic that links these short takes -- many only two pages long -- is not the American driveway per se, but the frequently exasperating gravel driveway that connects the author's home in rural Essex Center with a dirt road, and thence with the outside world.
Steep, ragged, prone to freezing and erosion, Brookes' driveway is as much an emblem of immobility as mobility. "Poised between civilization and nature," the driveway sneaks up on him like the trials of country living itself. When the author tidies it with a neat edging of railroad ties, he merely makes it impossible to plow in the winter. A visit to the local gravel pit leaves him feeling like an "idiot." Gradually, Brookes writes, "I realized that the driveway was a trap, a kind of Advanced Vermont Living Test, and I would fail it." The essays, which double as "diary entries" as they move chronologically through seven years in Essex Center, take the author from disgust with his unworkable driveway to acceptance and even pride in its refusal to bow to his will.
Brookes seems to mean The Driveway Diaries to be a multipurpose book, much as a driveway can double as a basketball court or an herb garden. In places, Brookes makes it an earnest meditation on the place of the rural road in human culture, telling us solemnly that "a car doesn't belong anywhere," that "road-paving ... involves a kind of death," and that "A dirt road is a long-running experiment in sustainable transportation."
Mostly, though, the book is a series of comic sketches about an Englishman who dreams of being lord and master of 10 acres -- a vastness that's unattainable in Europe "unless you are an Earl, or are sleeping with an Earl" -- and finds himself foiled in quick succession by drought, wasps, monstrous grapevines, black sludge in the well, and a lawn that won't stop growing.
Brookes depicts himself as the archetypal Flatlander, a naïf whose well-intentioned eco-pieties are no match for the anarchic strength and resourcefulness of nature. At times he stops to contemplate the bucolic beauties of his new home, such as "pale translucent yellow irises peeling out veins of tawny rust like dried blood."
But this is only a quick break from the pratfalls. Brookes' struggle with his lawn -- told in two essays archly titled "Something in Nature Does Not Love a Lawn" -- is a case in point. After trotting out the familiar arguments against mowing and monoculture, the author confesses that his experiment with a "no-mow lawn" ended in abject defeat. As clover and dandelions spring up indomit-ably in the wake of his brand-new gas mower, he muses, "Nature, once more, has shown herself more than capable of surviving my good intentions."
It's a fine sentiment, but one that doesn't offer much help to those who are wondering how to reduce the human-generated emissions that threaten the very existence of the temperate, resilient landscape Brookes alternately celebrates and bemoans. In anecdotes like this, environmentalism emerges as just another occasion for liberal guilt, a pretext for browbeating and navel-gazing.
Ultimately, Brookes is most successful at making larger points when he veers away from his own foibles and casts a keen eye on the landscape and the people who inhabit it. His portrait of Grant Corson, local architect of the eccentric "Pixie Houses," suggests that it's possible to marry high-minded concerns about energy conservation to good old-fashioned Yankee thrift and cunning.
An attempt to make us laugh while making us think, The Driveway Diaries does both, but seldom at the same time. Stylistically, it's more than a bit twee, rife with personifications of inanimate objects and mock-heroic exaggerations as Brookes embarks on yet another excruciatingly detailed description of an ill-fated home-improvement project.
Still, Brookes is a deft satirical miniaturist, and he draws a bead on the common American desire to have country life both ways: Dominate nature and harmonize with it. Anyone who's ever been tempted by rural living will empathize with -- or tremble at -- his anecdotes. Some readers may even emerge with a sneaky new appreciation for their paved suburban driveways -- "dead," to be sure, but, like Brookes' prose, a smooth ride.