What is American is one of those things that is so hard to determine that at this point, it’s almost like a philosophical dilemma rather than a physical entity. Many have tried to define or capture it; in fact, it seems that the right wing has sought to trademark it for the last couple of decades. But pinning the answer to that question to one definition is never successful, and it seems that the journey to find that answer is just as if not more important. Such is the case with Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn’s Anthem: An American Road Story.
In the summer of 1995, the two women, fed up with their jobs, decided to interview as many people as they possibly could under the auspices of looking for the definition of our country, of American heroes, and of the American Dream. The result was a chronicle of that trip told through both a book and a film.
I am not sure if either the film or book were very popular upon their release, as I came in after the fact, getting the book as swag in the summer of 1998 when I interned for its publisher, Avon Books. I was quite possibly the worst intern in the history of publishing because aside from free books and the ability to fix a five-way copier jam in under a minute, I took nothing away from my experience except for the desire to not work in publishing and to not spend my life commuting into Manhattan via the Long Island Rail Road.
But my ultimately unrewarding experience aside (which, by the way, is compounded by the fact that I turned down an interview for an unpaid internship with a major comics publisher because this internship was paid and I didn’t want my parents to be upset that I was working for no money), I got some very good reads out of it and Anthem was one of them. During my time in editorial, the book’s editor, Jennifer Hershey, had a large poster of the cover to the paperback edition (Gabel and Hahn standing in a road holding their recording equipment) on the wall of her office and a huge stack of the hardcover edition by her door. I either asked for a copy or swiped one (probably the former) because the concept of two people taking a road trip to interview people intrigued me, as it was a huge risk for someone to take with her life and I was one of the most risk-averse people in the world (still am to an extent).
I read Anthem on the train, taking it in kind of passively. I don’t think that’s the type of reaction that the authors were looking for from a reader, but it’s not their fault; at that time I had the perspective of an overprivileged white college student who really knew nothing about the world beyond beers on Saturday. Oh sure, I had service learning in classes that had me volunteering in sketchy areas of Baltimore and there was a professor or two that required a subscription to The New York Times, but the atmosphere at Loyola was very insulating; I went to college for four years and really didn’t take the time to look very much beyond myself or my own shit. So really, it’s not their fault.
Fast forward to this summer when I decided that I would spend a couple of months reading “road trip books.” Anthem had been sitting on a shelf collecting dust and because it had been thirteen years since I had originally followed Gabel and Hahn’s trip, and because I identify very strongly with 1995 (it’s the year I graduated high school) I decided to open it up. Plus, the wonder of Netflix provided me with the opportunity to view their film, something I wasn’t able to do in 1998 (although it took two discs to do it — the first one Netflix sent wouldn’t play).
Gabel and Hahn start off heading for New Orleans where they interview Dough Brinkley, a historian and friend who provides their “guinea pig” first interview. Brinkley, and then George Stephanopolous, George McGovern, Michael Stipe, John Waters, Studs Terkel, and many others offer both an assessment of where they have been and where they are, but also where the country may be going, a sentiment echoed by so many of the both famous and non-famous people interviewed, the centerpiece of which is a week with Hunter Thompson where the doctor lives up to his reputation, doing everything but giving the two women aan interview, and both Gabel and Hahn–they alternate narrating chapters–provide a thorough account of their time with him. At times, it veers toward hero worship and there are occasions where Thompson and some of the other subjects seem like characters more than people, but to their credit, Gabel and Hahn make a solid effort to talk to a wide variety of people without cramming them into some sort of agenda, which is the case of so many bad books and films of this type.
In fact, their asking all sorts of people basically the same questions is one of the project’s major strengths. While I enjoy hearing what famous people have to say, two interviews I found most intriguing were with Dorothy Betts, a waitress in an Ames, Iowa Perkins restaurant who imparts an incredible amount of knowledge and experience and is ultimately optimistic; and Micah Wagner and Ryan Parr, gas station attentdants who were about 20 at the time and had a much more pessimistic view of their future. It’s some of these sentiments that help Anthem transcend its time period. Reading the words of conservationists, politicians, and everyday citizens, I could easily place what they are saying in the context of the struggles that America faces today.
Ultimately, though, the project is a time capsule and a very personal one, as Gabel and Hahn share their experiences in trying to get the project off the ground and even a few of the more grungy details of living life on the road. The film–which I gathered was the original goal and the book spun out of the filmmaking–provides us with shots of the two in motel rooms, dealing with a broken-down car, and making payphone call after payphone call to their voice mail to see where their next destination will be. I found that viewing it after I had read the book was a great choice, as there is so much in the book that is not in the movie due to time constraints, and therefore the film is a great enhancement to the whole experience. I found myself wondering what happened to the people they interviewed as well as what happened to the authors in the fifteen years since, and secretly hoping for a sequel, though I’m sure that won’t happen.