Chris Benjamin goes on the road to chase paradise
Review: Chasing Paradise: A Hitchhiker’s Search for Home in a World at War with Itself by Chris Benjamin
“Don’t go mistaking paradise,” Bob Dylan warned us, “for that house across the road.”
Chris Benjamin’s 2001 quest for paradise took him much farther than across the road. From Nova Scotia he travelled to northern British Columbia, southern California, Colorado, and a New Orleans jail cell before heading home to face his student loans. Supported sometimes with a bus pass, often only with a hitchhiker’s thumb, Benjamin thrust himself upon the world and its weird and garrulous inhabitants. Now twenty years later, he’s surfaced to tell the tale.
Chasing Paradise reads a little like an updated Canada Made Me, Norman Levine’s 1958 book about his poverty-ridden travels across 1950s Canada. Both of these books are portraits of the artist, but they are also portraits of the country and their eras. Levine captured a sleepy, insular nation, along with his bitter resentments. Benjamin gives us the voices of fellow travellers, organic farmers, and coffee shop denizens. He is frank about the racist rants of the truck drivers and others who picked up him and his gal pal (“girlfriend” doesn’t quite fit) en route. He is not bitter, but disappointment isn’t too far away.
Because the paradise of the title is not an achievable goal, though “the pearl” of enlightenment and knowledge remains a stated goal, even if it is borrowed from Jack Kerouac’s Beatnik classic, On the Road. Benjamin references Kerouac’s novel throughout the story of his journey, comparing his own adventures the tale Kerouac told. Kerouac’s work is partly an inspiration for Benjamin’s travels, and the Beat writer’s energetic prose is a demonstrable influence on Benjamin’s own vibrant storytelling style. Though it must be said, Benjamin also critiques Kerouac’s booze-filled end and his racism, homophobia, and egocentrism.
Kerouac begins his novel promising that along the journey, “the pearl” will emerge. Benjamin half-hopes for the same, but he’s clear-eyed enough not to expect it. What we get from him instead are a series of brief encounters, snatches of conversation, moments of historical reference (Mordecai Richler dies). What we also see are the last days before the New Normal, which falls down quickly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Benjamin witnesses the suddenly rising war fever and the counter movements of hope for peace.
In northern B.C. on 9/11, Benjamin soon enters the U.S.A. and travels via Greyhound bus to California and Kerouac’s old stomping grounds in San Francisco and Big Sur. Remnants of the Beats and hippies remain, but the shadows are faint. Soon, Benjamin is zooming to New Orleans, via Colorado, and his own booze-filled crisis in a crowded jail cell. “What is everyone coming down from Canada to get drunk in New Orleans for?” a judge asks, before releasing him for time served and saying, “I see you back here again, you’re doing thirty days.” Benjamin thanks him and decides it’s time to face the loan sharks. He heads for home.
Just as Mark Vonnegut’s memoir, The Eden Express, provides the atmosphere of the early 1970s, post-Sixties haze, Benjamin’s book is swollen with the atmosphere of the early days of the millennium. As he notes, he did an undergraduate degree in capitalism (business studies), and a graduate degree in activism (environmental studies). These different sides of his personality and impulses are a perpetual feature (not a bug) of his story. To dream of paradise, fix and save the world, or to settle down and serve the man? Is this still the paradigm of our choices? Did Kerouac and the hippies have it right? Or is there a deeper level of integration and acceptance of reality that is possible?
In his conclusion, Benjamin tells of how he met his wife — and how she quoted Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Benjamin says, yes, that’s what he learned. He may well have found the pearl Kerouac missed. Now, how to address that other part of his subtitle, the world screaming at accelerating speed for self-destruction in its ongoing war with itself?
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