Because of his natural charm and ability to unwind a narrative with relaxed ease, Howard Frank Mosher has, through his career, become a favorite of readers and booksellers alike. In “The Great Northern Express,’’ he uses this charm to carry us through what could have been a very difficult narrative: He embarks on a cross-country book tour, alone in his car, shortly after learning that he has prostate cancer. As Mosher travels through the countryside, his whimsy and casual approach to life make for a rollicking travelogue.
But the charm and wit don’t carry us far enough, and the jokes begin to run dry near the middle. Nevertheless, though the book’s focus wobbles a bit, it does offer insight into the pain behind it.
Mosher, who turns 70 this year, is the author of 10 novels. He is a master of spin, in a sense. He is able to put a down-to-earth tilt on just about everything, making whatever subject he is discussing seem less harmful than it is, or than it ought to seem. As he drives, he also takes us through his past, starting with his and his wife’s move to Vermont in the mid-1960s to teach. You sense darkness beneath the story, in the casual alcoholism of his colleagues, in the raffishness of many of his students, in the difficulty of a struggling teacher’s life, but this is all softened. At one point, he even recalls seeing a group of men lined up for a turn with “girlie show’’ performers in a circus tent in the town where he teaches: Still, there’s no real shock here.
This narrative gets folded into his travel record, along with other experiences and, as it turns out, hallucinations. Mosher drops imagined dialogues with various figures into this book. Among them are Mark Twain, dressed in a signature white suit; Mosher’s deceased Uncle Reg; and “the West Texas Jesus,’’ a musician-carpenter who drinks beer and offers friendly commentary from either the front seat of Mosher’s car, or his motel room. Humorous as a lot of these caricatures are, it’s hard, at times, to make the leap necessary to accept them as part of the narrative. It’s easy enough to see what Mosher is doing, which is engaging in dialogues with figures from his past - understandable, given the gravity of both the cancer diagnosis he’s wrestling with and the duress of such a long, cross-country trip. However, the insertions also feel forced.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of moments of realism here, reflecting genuine concern or compassion. There’s the moment, for instance, when Mosher is in line behind an illegal immigrant at a gas station convenience store. When the customer cannot afford an extra pint of milk, he considers buying it for her, but hesitates too long, and then feels guilty when she runs out without purchasing it. Or there are the numerous fleabag motels he stays in while on tour, contrasted with the warm welcome he receives at many of the bookstores he visits. (With the exception of the one stop he makes at a large chain bookstore, where an employee tries to shoo Mosher away from the parking space reserved for him, based on the sorry appearance of Mosher’s old car, which he elsewhere dubs the “Loser Cruiser.’’)
This is a reflective travelogue, in the tradition of John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley’’ or William Least Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways.’’ The story isn’t the thing, in this case. The “thing,’’ if there is one, is that Mosher is struggling with his mortality. And that reality shimmers beneath all of his observations, giving the book just enough pressure to be memorable while also being amusing and, in the truest sense of the word, human.