Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West
by Erin Hogan
(Univ. of Chicago, $20)
Three summers ago, Erin Hogan escaped her Chicago desk job in a modest Volkswagen Jetta. The 38-year-old book publicist had only three weeks of freedom ahead of her and an itinerary as civilized as a textbook. The admitted “recovering art historian” intended to visit several key works of land art—enormous outdoor projects that artists working out West had created in the 1970s and ’80s. Maybe she would learn something profound about the nature of human creativity, she thought, or at least experience moments of wonder and awe. As a single woman hooked on busy evenings and speed-dial connectivity, she also hoped she might just discover “how to enjoy being alone.”
Hogan’s “slyly uproarious, ever-probing book” never arrives at anything resembling a lasting epiphany, said Tom Vanderbilt in The New York Times. But as the author roams the West battling potholes, bad directions, and the constant urge to ditch the open road for her parents’ sofa in Reno, Nev., more than a few readers will “love the ride.” Hogan, a sort of “Thelma sans Louise,” is refreshingly candid about her irrational anxieties and about how disappointing land art can be at first glance. She’s as quick to point out that Robert Smithson’s famous Spiral Jetty is surprisingly “tiny” as she is to confess a fear that her bones surely will be picked over by wild animals if her car overheats in the desert. Like the rest of us, she’s also constantly wondering whether her misgivings reflect problems with the sights and strangers she encounters or simply a problem with her own perceptions.
Hogan’s “whining” can get tiresome, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. She eventually has a transporting encounter with a work of land art when dawn breaks over Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in western New Mexico, but “we get there too late” for Spiral Jetta to forgive her the many preceding “self-indulgent” passages. Yet “anyone who has traveled alone will identify” with Hogan’s feelings of vulnerability, said June Sawyers in the Chicago Tribune. Read in the right frame of mind, this book is not just an amiable meditation on land art. It’s “one of the funniest and most entertaining road trips” to appear between two covers in “quite some time.”
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