The Routes of Man

By TED CONOVER

Let’s face it: it’s hard to write a book about infrastructure. The ties that bind us together are enormously complex but difficult to make interesting. The sewer system of New York is collapsing as we speak, but who cares? Garbage dumps? Highways? What a snooze. That’s why Ted Conover’s book about roads — by turns philosophical, witty, and hang-onto-your-seats adventurous — is such a tour de force. Conover’s premise: that roads, a basic human tool, are, like any tool, ambivalent. Paths of contact and openness also destroy old cultures and ecosystems. Routes that connect us also make us vulnerable. But Conover, who began his career following hoboes in Rolling Nowhere, doesn’t merely philosophize, he travels. Traversing six of the world’s most contested roadways, he offers travelogues from India to China to Peru to and back to Park Avenue with such zest and intelligence you’ll find yourself becoming an infrastructure junkie, too. We follow mahogany — that coveted, endangered rain forest export — from Park Avenue deep into the Amazonian camp where it is illegally harvested. On this journey — by bus and truck and bicycle scooter and boat — Conover retraces a treacherous byway that both supports and exploits impoverished people, and threatens the rain forest that supports our planet. Following tribal Buddhist school children on an icy canyon out of the Himalayas, we watch a people struggling to make room for new industry and wealth while preserving a time honored long isolated culture. Conover doesn’t so much solve the problems he finds as pose them wisely, leaving us open to their dangers and possibilities. We leave our journey renewed, feeling how the most familiar parts of our world can also be its most puzzling.