Two single twentysomething guys hit the road in their dilapidated Volkswagen van in search of adventure and the meaning of life. While this could be the premise for the latest teen gross-out flick to hit your local megaplex, it is, instead, a thoughtful postcard from America's West, signed by Donald Miller.
Miller landed firmly on the Christian publishing radar with his popular book BLUE LIKE JAZZ: Nonreligious Thoughts about Christian Spirituality. This edgy memoir about faith and subsequent releases offering a similar orthodox-yet-not take on questions about the Christian life solidified his position as what Marcia Ford called "Captain Trendy Spiritual Writer" in her review of BLUE LIKE JAZZ for Faithful Reader.
But BLUE wasn't Miller's first foray into book publishing. An earlier book, PRAYER AND ART OF VOLKSWAGEN MAINTENANCE, went relatively unnoticed; it's been revamped and republished as THROUGH PAINTED DESERTS to capitalized on Captain Trendy's popularity. That might not sound like a formula for compelling reading, but this is a case when marketing strategy benefits the general public. This is a book that deserves a second look.
In the interest of full disclosure, my idea of a perfect vacation is a road trip. If I can roll down the windows and turn up the music, I'm as happy as a clam (assuming of course, clams are happy creatures). Like the author, I hail from Texas and I recognized much of the terrain and even some of the people he describes in early chapters as the duo heads from Houston towards Oregon by way of the Grand Canyon. While I prefer traveling in vehicles that don't frequently require surgery on the side of road, I'm a sucker for the "two guys finding themselves and God on the open road" set-up.
Having said that, Miller delivers on the potential the premise holds. He manages to take beautiful snapshots of the landscape he's traveling through and the people he meets along the way without succumbing to sentimentalism. And while this journey is largely about knowing God better, THROUGH PAINTED DESERTS doesn't knock you over the head with a new bit of spiritual insight every few pages. Instead, overt spiritual musings are replaced with seemingly mundane details and observations that end up serving much the same function.
The humor in THROUGH PAINTED DESERTS is as dry as the high desert air Miller and Paul breathe on their way north. Their ongoing banter covers everything from how to survive a snake bite to what each is looking for in a girlfriend to musings about God; much of it is just begging for a Mark Mothersbaugh score to fade in. I laughed a lot.
By the time the duo makes it to Oregon, their friendship has matured and both guys have learned a lot about themselves and, perhaps, God. Basking in the beauty of the Northwest Miller writes, "It is a wonder that those exposed to such beauty forfeit the great questions in the face of such miraculous evidence. I think again about this small period of grace, and thank God for it, that if only for a season, I could feel the why of life, see it in the metaphor of light, in the endlessness of the cosmos, in the miracle of friendship. And if these mountains had the ability to reason, perhaps they would contemplate the beauty of humanity, and praise God for the miracle that each of us is, pondering the majesty of God and the wonder of man in one bewildering context."
It's enough to make me consider taking a VW van on my next road trip.
(Okay, probably not. But read the book anyway.)
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on August 16, 2005