“American Moses,” the debut novel by Brooklyn journalist Stephen Witt, is the latest in a long line of road trip novels. While many miss the mark, Witt delivers a captivating travelogue through an American landscape at once beautiful, sad, depressing and hopeful. It all starts in a New York City morgue, of course. Where else?
Southie, a luckless family man with an eye for women and sixpacks, gets canned from his morgue job and heads home to the sleepy town of Port Decker, New Jersey- despondent but by no means unoptimistic. The man is a former journalist from the mean streets of Chicago, after all; it’s clear this is not his first life setback.
It helps that he has a supportive wife in Zippy, a proud Jamaican woman bent on raising their two children the old fashioned way. When some neo-Nazis hang a swastika in town soon afterwards, Zippy, who is black, unhesitatingly follows an outraged Southie and his small band of Jewish followers on an impromptu journey to Las Vegas.
What follows is a wild journey that takes the group, led by Southie, a modern-day Moses through a run of small towns and cities like Dayton, Ohio and East St. Louis that offer a fresh vision of contemporary American life.
This is a world of eager waitresses and city slums, motel rooms and late-night truck stops; a place where issues of race, love, religion and marriage often complicated and painful. Witt tackles them movingly, with insight and humor. Southie learns much as he treks towards the Promised Land, and so does the reader.