He is an old man, beleaguered and muted like the last televised days of Richard Nixon, a bleary man with washcloth skin, all jowls and inflamed joints. He is a failed philosopher, a fading gentleman frightened by the sensations of the modern world. The painful taste of breath mints, the velocity of hand dryers in the men’s room. Everything is extreme these days. But he has always been a coward. He was afraid of the sun for years and he still jumps at unfamiliar noises, sudden changes in temperature, and the sight of Antarctica on a map. Looking at all that blank land feels like leaping off a rooftop. When he had a door, he would check its lock at least three times before getting into bed. He is afraid of many things and he has imagined his death via car wreck and home invasion many times. Now he is an antique in an overheated world of plastic and pixels, a silly and superstitious man who calls the crusts of bread ‘bones’ and refuses to eat them. But perhaps his fears have kept him alive for these ninety-one years.

His lover was a dangerous woman who feared absolutely nothing, not even when they came after her with fire and guns. She once told him that she made a deal with the devil and now he believes her.

My father would have turned sixty-eight yesterday. I do not know how to celebrate him now that he is gone. I know he would smack me if he saw me brooding, but I cannot help replaying his birthday last year when we sat in a Wisconsin steakhouse one month after his lung transplant. After ten months spent waiting for the phone to ring while remaining within a thirty-minute radius of a hospital in an unfamiliar city, we had finally completed our mission: he had a new lung. I remember how proud he was to be in public without his hoses and oxygen tanks. How the doctors said he would live for a very long time. Three months later he died of septic shock.

I’ve been replaying many things this year. His last hours. The touch of his hand as the machine flatlined. The things I should have said and done (although I’ve been told it’s more constructive to say wish instead of should). The dark questions of mortality and meaning in an irrational universe. And I still have not accepted the death of my mother, who died seven years ago.

What does it mean to accept death? Is such a thing possible? Perhaps there is a problem with our language, particularly for the agnostic and the atheist. The rupture of tradition and the break from ritual has been patched with bloodless words like acceptance and mindfulness, with clinical approaches like Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, and prescriptive notions of “moving forward” and “pushing through” — as if there is someplace to go. Instead I retreat into philosophy, seeking consolation in widescreen meditations on the nature of souls and the mind, such as Will Durant’s channeling of Spinoza: “Our minds are the fitful flashes of an eternal light.”

Writing about grief does not feel fashionable in the digital age, in this schizophrenic landscape of relentless cheerleading and cynical handwringing. Discussing death seems like a clunky and messy thing to do. But I can think of no other subject these days. Each time I pick up a pen, I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s admonition that “the only worthwhile subject is man’s relationship with god.” And what is grief but the process of squaring loss with faith? Of looking god in the eye, per Voltaire: Either god can prevent suffering and he will not, or he wishes to prevent it but he cannot. I doubt I am up to this task. But I hope the notes, meditations, and references in these essays might offer somebody some small measure of reassurance.

But why should I write about my grief? It is nothing special. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—a Gothic tale that crystallized our desire to deny death before it was transformed into schlocky films and sugary cereal—the young scientist mourns the death of his mother. He describes his inability to comprehend her disappearance: “It is so long before the mind can persuade itself that she, whom we saw every day, and whose very existence appeared a part of our own, can have departed forever — that the brightness of beloved eye can have been extinguished, and the sound of a voice so familiar, and dear to the ear, can be hushed, never more to be heard.”

The shock of nevermore. The pacing of hallways as if grief were an interlude, as if we might enter a room and see the departed returned, sitting in a favorite chair. I remember the mad urge to dial my mother’s number in the weeks and months after her funeral, to tell her all about this terrible thing that happened. Walking to the car this morning, a shift in the light left me convinced I needed to pick up my father from physical therapy.

“These are the reflections of the first days,” Shelley writes, “but when the lapse of time proves the reality of the evil, then the actual bitterness of grief commences.” Bitterness is the right word. As if gnawing at this wound might somehow bring back the ones I love. But Shelley offers a jolt of perspective: “Yet from whom has not that rude hand rent away some dear connection? and why should I describe a sorrow which all have felt, and must feel? The time at length arrives when grief is rather an indulgence than a necessity; and the smile that plays upon the lips, although it may be deemed a sacrilege, is not banished. My mother was dead, but we had still duties which we ought to perform; we must continue our course with the rest, and learn to think ourselves fortunate, whilst one remains whom the spoiler has not seized.”

This is the maddening characteristic of grief: although it is experienced by everyone, it remains fiercely personal and isolating. Only we are aware of the spaces missing from our lives: the sound of a loved one’s feet padding down the hall; the pursed lip or arched brow; the heat and storms and history pulsing beneath the way they said good morning. Yet it is also an emotion shared by anyone who has lived and loved long enough. We do not discuss this as much as we should.

Finally tracked down a clean hardcover copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy, which might be the book I return to the most. Something about it feels like home. Aside from elegantly navigating the depths of Bacon, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer et al, Durant might be the most kind-hearted and humble writer I’ve ever encountered. A valiant warrior against the incomprehensible language of academia, he seeks to “break down the barriers beyond knowledge and need,” arguing that the academic’s “barbarous terminology” has forced the world to choose between “a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.” Instead, he is on the side of warmth and humor, “not only because wisdom is not wise if it scares away merriment, but because a sense of humor, being born of perspective, bears a near kinship to philosophy; each is the soul of the other.” And all of this is in the first three pages of the preface.


We tell ourselves such strange stories. Stories like I am not good enough or I will never be understood. We hear these words in the private chatter, the idiot hum in our heads. This voice is a village crowded with heroes and cowards, a chorus of teachers, dreamers, and thieves fighting for our attention and telling us we who are. But sometimes we catch a glimpse of who we might become. Perhaps it’s a rogue thought in the shower or a shiver of déjà vu on the sidewalk, but for a moment our mental weather clears and the world makes some kind of sense. They call this synchronicity, when our insides meet the outside in a meaningful way. You might call it gut sense or intuition, but you know when it happens. It’s encoded in the hairs on your neck, the flutter in your nerves, and it’s been within you all along, a deep prehistoric knowledge that occasionally breaks to the surface before disappearing beneath the next wave of chatter. This mural was designed to make these moments happen more often.

Conceived by the artist Candy Chang, The Atlas of Tomorrow is an interactive mural in Philadelphia that invites passersby to consider a dilemma in their lives, spin the dial, and consult a fable inspired by the I Ching, the ancient Chinese text that examines the inevitability of change. I wrote sixty-four short stories that blend the lessons of the I Ching with classic archetypes that highlight the different personalities we carry within us. The result is a collection of dispatches from ‘the town in our head’ that introduces a surreal world of endless winters, murderous sunflowers, and rotting cars to describe familiar anxieties and passions.

Philadelphia, USA

10. The Lion

Last week a lion came to town. Naturally we were terrified. He stalked our streets with his tail swishing behind him, snarling and lunging at anyone who came near. We gathered on rooftops and watched from a distance, too frightened to return to our offices and homes. He ate mailboxes and brutalized small cars; he was taking apart the post office with his teeth when a little girl came skipping down the street. She bounded towards the beast with outstretched arms, chanting Mr. Lion, Mr. Lion as if he were a stuffed animal that had come to life. She giggled as she picked up his tail and began skipping rope. We gasped. We covered our eyes. But the lion simply sighed and settled down for a nap. When approached by such a cheerful and harmless creature, what else can you do?

Approach your adversaries with kindness and no harm will come to you. Your behavior will determine the well-being of your community and yourself. Integrity is louder than words.

Philadelphia, USA

18. The Cars

One morning our cars began to roll over and die in the streets. At first it was just a few convertibles and sedans but by late afternoon hundreds of cars and trucks lay on their backs in the rush hour sun, their wheels pointed at the sky. Nobody wanted to clean up the mess and we spent weeks arguing about the cause. We formed committees and held hearings to assign the blame. Meanwhile our cars remained upside down and we could not go anywhere. Months passed. Birds made nests in the wheel wells and grass sprouted from engines, axles, and transmissions. One day we realized that nobody was coming to clean this up. There was no cause and there was no one to blame. It was just one of those things. That night we gathered in the streets and began to rock and tip our cars until the world was right again.

Rather than worry about the cause of unfortunate circumstances, improve the situation. Repair is vital to growth.

58. The Smile

There once was a woman we loved to see. She had a lovely smile that would spread from her face to ours. It was not the type of grin that appears when you hear a clever joke or you’ve been tickled but the elegant smile of someone who has learned a bit of wisdom through the years and might even be satisfied with life. Whenever she entered a room, her smile was a welcome and reassuring sight, and we sat a little straighter and felt a little brighter. One day somebody whispered in her ear and it must have been quite a joke, for her gentle smile grew into a jack o’lantern grin and we smiled too at first—but then her smile grew so big and wide that we became frightened, although we could not quite explain why.

Emotions are contagious. Joy comes from curiosity and truth, and must be balanced with dignity if it is to last.

The mural is located at 533 South Juniper Street near the corner of South and Broad Streets in Philadelphia. Concept and artwork by Candy Chang; stories written by James A. Reeves. A collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and Broad Street Ministry. The project was featured in the exhibition By the People: Designing a Better America at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. An expanded book version is currently underway.

‘Heavenly Music Corporation’ is the glorious sound of power lines humming on a Saturday night long before the age of pixels and screens. Robert Fripp suggested naming the track ‘The Transcendental Music Corporation’ but Eno worried this would “make people think they were serious.” An interesting point, that ‘transcendental’ is chained to fuzzy and oftentimes sanctimonious New Age jargon whereas there’s a wink behind ‘heavenly’, an acknowledgment of its impossibility that lends itself to irony.

Fripp & Eno — Heavenly Music Corporation

Polydor, 1973 | More information
A scene from our long drive home

When I lost my mother, I met grief for the first time and I ran. I thought grief would be dignified and monumental like a tower shrouded in mist or quiet days spent weeping in a dim room. Instead I discovered that grief is a relentless feedback loop, a wash of static riddled with fractured images, creepshow dreams, and broken questions that would never be answered. How could this. Why didn’t she. If only I. This wasn’t supposed. Science tells us grief is a biological necessity, a Darwinian driver that teaches us to protect the ones we love—or at least, the ones who still remain.

My father’s breathing became labored in the years after my mother’s death, as if staying alive had become too demanding. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which meant his lungs were stiffening due to a patchwork of scars that covered the precious tissue which translates oxygen into life. The doctors could not point to a specific cause beyond a crossed wire somewhere deep within the machinery of his cells, a faulty line of genetic code which sent his immune system on a terrible mission that rejected the logic of life: his body was attacking itself.

We tend to die when we are not working. A stroke at the dinner table, a car wreck on a Saturday night. We like to die on weekends or during the holidays. This is something I learned while waiting in Wisconsin with my father for a lung, a factoid gleaned from hours spent sitting among gnarled old men waiting for their telephones to ring with news of fresh hearts, livers, and lungs—men who cheered when they learned that Wisconsin does not require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Each night they gathered with their oxygen tanks, heart attack vests, and grisly math, eager for the weekend or the next holiday to come. “Might get some lungs now,” they said before Easter. “Thousands of drunk drivers can only be a good thing,” they said as Memorial Day approached. “Alcohol and explosives are better than Christmas,” they said on the Fourth of July.

One of these men approached my father when we first arrived in Wisconsin, our nerves still buzzing with the speed and heat of the interstate after a sixteen hour drive from New Orleans. He was the kind of man most people ignore, the lonely soul puttering at the margins of a discount superstore with uncombed hair like a cloud, or the blurry retiree doing the crossword on a bench at the mall—but here in the rooms where we would wait for a lung, he was an authority, and he leaned towards my father and asked, “What’s your blood type?”

My father took a drag from the oxygen tube that circumnavigated his head. A puff of compressed air accompanied his answer. “O positive.”

“Me too.”

They nodded at one another, enjoying this primitive bond. The same brand of blood flowed through their bodies yet they would not hinder each other. My father needed a lung; the white-haired man was waiting for a heart. The wheels of my father’s oxygen tank squeaked down the hall as he shuffled towards our room. The white-haired man picked up a butter knife and grinned as he followed my father, making swift stabbing motions towards his backside, mugging and jiving for the others in the lounge. “He’s the right blood type and I need a heart.” Everyone laughed. He would play this gag dozens of times in the months to come. At first I did not think this was funny, but in a few months I began to understand.

The tribalism of our bodies is profound. If one of our cells encounters another cell that does not share the same DNA, the body launches an attack. It’s the scene in the science fiction film when an interloper’s retina or barcode fails to scan and red lights flash through corridors to the beat of a klaxon alarm while men with guns hunt down the intruder. Organ rejection is the enemy of transplantation, a defense mechanism that has only been brought to heel in recent years.

The first recorded attempt at installing an organ in someone else’s body dates back to the third century BCE when Bian Que, a Chinese physician and author of The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of 81 Difficult Issues, claimed to have used anesthesia to swap the hearts of two men, one with too much willpower and another who was too passive. Hoping to achieve balance, he “cut open their breasts, removed their hearts, exchanged and replaced them, and applied a numinous medicine,” according to a Daoist text. “And when they awoke, they were as good as new.” Some Catholic histories describe the replacement of Emperor Justinian’s gangrenous leg with the limb of an Ethiopian man, a surgery performed by the twin physicians Damian and Cosmas, for which they earned sainthood. Such accounts are improbable yet the idea of saving someone’s life with the parts of another is rooted in our most ancient notions of healing. In the early twentieth-century, a series of successful transplants were performed on dogs, chimpanzees, and convicted murderers, and the increasingly refined use of immunosuppressants extended the likelihood of survival—yet the procedure remains haunted by rejection. (A sixteenth-century doctor in Italy attributed this phenomena to the “force and power of individuality.”) Transplantation is particularly risky for lungs because this is the organ that connects our bodies with the outside world, its dust and heat and microbes.

Whenever my father’s telephone rang, we jumped, knowing that if a voice on the other end offered him a lung, we would have one hour to get to the hospital where they would cut a slit along his ribcage, pull out one of his bad lungs, slide in the new one, and attach it to the trachea. “Sort of like changing a vacuum bag,” said the doctor. The other bad lung would remain in his body. Something needed to fill the space.

One lung is fine. People can run marathons with one lung. The pope has only his left lung, due to tuberculosis when he was a boy. In terms of daily activity and life expectancy, one lung is just as good as two.

Two years ago my father underwent a battery of tests and procedures while they determined his suitability as a candidate for a lung transplant. The word ‘candidate’ lingers in my mind as I recall him shaking the hands of dozens of doctors and administrators, a man running for the strangest kind of office as they peppered him with questions about his drinking habits and propensity for depression, about his lifestyle and future plans. Would he go back to work if he received a lung? Would he exercise and eat sensibly? These queries were polite variations on a single question: Do you deserve to live?

They inspected my father’s heart with a camera and biopsied his lung tissue. They removed all of his teeth to reduce the possibility of infection. He spent hours chewing on an elaborate mouth guard attached to a screen, a dystopian video game that refined his swallowing reflex to minimize the possibility of food or liquid entering his trachea. A series of social workers interviewed me, evaluating my fitness as a caregiver.

We sat in the cafeteria of the Veteran’s Hospital in Madison, one thousand miles from home. We watched snow cover the windows while we killed time until his next appointment, a test to confirm that he could still walk at least nine hundred feet in six minutes. If not, they would remove him from the list, classifying him as a lost cause, a body unworthy of someone else’s organ. Yet I never saw my father express even the faintest glimmer of anxiety. Even as his breathing grew worse and he maxed out all of his oxygen machines, he would alway smile, dutifully taking his daily trips to the Dollar Store, and we spent long afternoons by the Wisconsin River, where he pretended to fish. “If I’m going to die,” he said, “I might as well die outside doing something.”

Watching him calmly munch a cheeseburger in the hospital cafeteria, I realized this distant figure throughout so much of my life had become a grand old man and one of my closest friends while I was not looking. Only now do I see how hard he worked at this. He had traded his beer and high blood pressure for a grey beard and a fishing hat, and he would wake before dawn to meditate and highlight passages from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk he referred to as ‘Nathan’. Going through his files after he died, I found folders labelled Sears pension, Telephone bill, and Buddha. He went to all kinds of churches with anyone who wanted company, and he began talking about the godhead, how everything is connected. He loved the water. He loved boats. “When I die, toss my ashes in the nearest body of water,” he’d say. “Even if it’s a puddle.” Rather than watch game shows and gossip with the other patients, he bought an old canoe and began refinishing it in the parking garage beneath the hotel. The fumes from the paint thinner and varnish were ferocious, but he figured a new lung was on its way.

Then the doctors called. They told us there was an organ drought—a grisly phrase that conjured apocalyptic scenes along dried riverbeds.

At first we believed in math. We spent the month of March researching blood types and averaging wait times, hoping to calculate the odds of receiving a lung. Did the odds improve with each passing day or was it like getting struck by lightning? In April we passed through a superstitious phase of gut feelings and prophetic dreams. We sensed vibrations in the air. “I’ve got a feeling the call will come today,” we said. But the phone never rang and we ended the month believing in bad juju and jinxes. We began playing long quiet games of chess in May, keeping an ear cocked for the phone. Summer came and we watched our neighbor down the hall return from surgery with two new lungs, his face nearly unrecognizable without his oxygen mask. Another man gave up after nine months of waiting and flew home to Arizona. Time became elastic and calendars stopped making sense. In June we switched from chess to backgammon, thinking we might as well include an element of chance.

At a pizza party for the transplant patients, a man took me aside. “People don’t know how to pray for this,” he said. “You only get an organ if somebody else dies.” I learned a lot about prayer during the ten months we spent in Wisconsin. In the laundry room I listened to a woman describe the night Jesus Christ said her husband would get his heart next Tuesday. When I awkwardly tried to comfort the family of a man who died during surgery, they smiled and said everything was okay, this was part of God’s plan. I met a Marine who was visiting the parents of the boy whose heart he received. They put their ears to his chest, listening to the sound of their son’s beating heart. I imagine them posed in pyramid formation, an echo of the Pietà. I envied this faith that comforts so many people in the face of uncertainty and tragedy because I did not know how to find my own.

Instead I drove. After midnight I would hit the interstate and speed west, fantasizing about space and light yet never daring to drive further than thirty miles from the hospital. When the lights of the city faded away, I would pull to the side of a county road and look at the stars while making my usual promises to be a better son, a more patient man. Then I drove back to our room where I would fall asleep to the sound of my father’s oxygen compressor, a burst of air hissing every six seconds through the night.

“With falling gas prices and a beautiful holiday forecast on the horizon, a record number of Americans are expected to hit the road this weekend. Experts are predicting an increase in auto accidents, so be careful out there.” I smiled at the radio, no longer caring that I was rooting for death.

My father’s telephone rang at six o’clock on the Friday before Labor Day, a weekend filled with car wrecks just like the radio had advertised. “Will you accept the lung of a recently deceased individual?” asked the voice on the phone. Oh god yes, he said. “Be at the hospital in one hour.”

After the surgery I watched his lungs on a monitor while a camera rooted through glistening pinks and reds, tracing the dark purple slashes of a suture. For days he teetered between life and death, and I watched the numbers and quizzed the doctors, absorbing a brutal lesson in the language of blood, gases, and tubes. At night I dreamt in the beautiful slang of nurses. “You only have a true mixed Venus when you insert a swan,” they said. I learned that a patient who insists on standing up despite repeatedly falling down is called a ‘jack-in-the-box’. But my father did not stand up. Not at first. Each time I looked at him I wept, thinking about the life he had in front of him. When he finally opened his eyes, I took his hand and told him he was safe, that he made it. “It’s coming along,” he whispered.

After nine days of bloods clots and collapses, of atrial fibrillation and intubation, the doctors removed the tubes and wires from my father. With one hand on his IV pole and the other wrapped around my arm, he took his first walk towards the nurses’ station. “King for a day,” he said. “I’m ready for the world.” We took dozens of careful walks through hospital hallways in the weeks that followed, and each time he went a little further than everyone expected. When I told him I was proud of him, he would give a small smile and say, “It’s coming along.” Each night when I left the hospital, he would turn off the lights in his room and wave a flashlight in his window while I stood in the parking lot, watching his little show.

Every Saturday we would explore Wisconsin, looking at its hills and Main Streets and lakes. Six weeks after his transplant, my father and I drove towards a spot on the map that advertised a scenic waterfall. When we arrived, there was a two-mile footpath through the woods. I didn’t want to walk it and I didn’t expect my father to manage it. “Let’s do it,” he said. Watching my father walk among the autumn trees, kicking leaves without any tubes or machines, I felt a sensation I can only describe as grace. No matter what happens, I thought, this moment was worth everything we’d gone through. I told him I was proud of him. “It’s coming along,” he said.

After 301 days in Wisconsin, we packed up the phenomenal number of spatulas, paintbrushes, floor lamps, and other things my father acquired from the Dollar Store, and at seven o’clock on a Sunday night we pointed the car at the Mississippi River so we could follow it home. We were hungry but we would wait to eat until we were in a different state. And there’s my father and me, sitting in a parking lot on a hill overlooking the river, munching cheeseburgers and watching the lights of Dubuque.

In one month a doctor would tell me that my father was the sickest man in the hospital. I remember thinking he would take a strange pride in this fact when he got out of the hospital and I told him about it while we took another drive.

Septic shock is as fast and brutal as it sounds. On New Year’s Day my father said he had a sniffle. He refused to go to the doctor. The next morning he could hardly stand. I poured him into the backseat and rushed to the nearest emergency room. They said his body was too weak to build a fever, that his blood had turned toxic. They flooded his body with antibiotics and fluid, which crippled his breathing. Soon he was on dialysis and intubated with a swan in his neck—his vital functions once again outsourced to machines. At dawn a nurse brought me a telephone, a rerun of the day I lost my mother, while a doctor’s voice told me my father was going to die, that all they had left to offer was prayer. “If I had brought him here twelve hours sooner, would it have made a difference?” I wanted absolution. “Theoretically yes,” he said. “But he was very sick and weak, so theoretically no. I’m afraid this is a question you will carry for the rest of your life.”

I held my father’s hand while I watched the numbers on the monitor like an altar, whispering please don’t go while his blood pressure quietly dropped into single digits. The red and blue numbers for his pulse and oxygen saturation flicked to white. A nurse shut off the screen.

Here is an endless bayou with lots of birds and interesting clouds in the sky, and there’s my father in a little tin boat with my mom sitting next to him and his dog in the front, a breeze blowing through its fur. This is what I hope heaven looks like for him.

I kissed my father on the forehead and told him I was proud of him, and for the first time he did not say it’s coming along. I told him he was the kindest and gentlest person I’d known and he was leaving this world very well loved. In the end, this might be the best any of us can hope for.

After my mother died I drove her ashes from Michigan to the California coast because she always wanted to see the ocean. And I kept driving for weeks, thinking I could outrun my grief at seventy miles per hour, hoping I could escape it by hiding in unfamiliar towns and anonymous motels, by becoming a stranger who sometimes marveled at the terrible thing that happened to an old friend named James.

Now that my father is gone, I want to run again. My first instinct was to point my car into the Yukon or the Mojave desert. But this impulse faded as quickly as it came. My father taught me some crucial lessons about patience and grace in his final year. In the days after his death, I received calls and visits from so many lives he had touched, even when he simply took his dog for a walk or futzed with his boat. I discovered he had a ladyfriend and they were making plans to live together. (“Don’t hang up any pictures in the new house,” he’d written her. “That will be my job.”) Despite losing the ability to breathe without gasping, my father remained present in the lives of others and I could hear him telling me to do the same.

I see him standing in the woods on that October afternoon with his quiet little smile, a simple gesture that reflected an entire life. A constellation of love and loss and dogged faith in taking one more step no matter how shallow our breath might be. His smile radiates through me as I write this and I know there is a lesson here even though it evaporates as soon as I try to describe it. Much like the impossibility of looking into the sun, perhaps it is better to simply enjoy the light.

In a fluorescent motel lobby, a small radio behind bulletproof glass plays the American hit parade. That night I dreamt of Natalie Wood yelling “hit your lights” from the edge of a cliff, her arms swinging through the headlights again and again. The next morning I began assembling this collection of reverberated songs, AM radio chatter, static, and looping vinyl crackle recorded between 2009 and 2014. Dedicated to romance among the ruins, these are soundtracks for long drives, cheap motels, and late nights.

Sometimes a Waffle House is a home. I found salvation in a pool of sodium light twenty-three miles east of Rapid City. She had a perpetually pissed-off supervisor who told her to quit digging for her rock bottom. I stood in line at the Gas ‘n Go behind a furious man with a pistol tucked into the elastic waistband of his sweatpants, yelling that the cashier only gave him three Powerball tickets when he should’ve gotten four.

“What time is checkout?” I asked. The clerk shrugged. An old noir flickered on the old black-and-white in the corner, Out of the Past from ’47 with Robert Mitchum’s hungover eyes and Jane Greer’s Mona Lisa smile. They watched the roulette wheel spin. She asked if there was a way to win and Mitchum told her there’s only a way to lose more slowly.

Christmas Eve in Kentucky
Rapid City, South Dakota
Highway 51, Missouri

“Unpretentious and insightful, The Road to Somewhere is a photo memoir of James A. Reeves’s journey all over the United States. Through his photographs and candid, episodic storytelling, Reeves documents his experiences and the people he encounters in various regions of the United States, reflecting with uncommon honesty on both positive and negative aspects of the culture. Reeves’s obsession with driving long distances in rental cars is fuelled by his search to figure out what it means to be an adult and to live a meaningful life in a complicated world. His unique point of view clearly comes through in both his writing and images—quirky, beautiful, disturbing, humorous, and at times unexpectedly and achingly moving.”

Photo Life

“The inspiration is so simple: Head out at random into America and see what you find. James A. Reeves found the America no one seems to be looking for anymore, and he also found himself.”

Roger Ebert

“A tantalizing 21st Century cross between James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, this remarkable and utterly original memoir heralds the arrival of a new and important American voice. James A. Reeves’s The Road to Somewhere will take you places you will not easily forget.”

Andres Dubus III

“The next page is always unexpected but never ill-considered and the writing hitches the hubris of the perpetual interloper to seemingly genuine empathy.”

The Huffington Post

“The sprawling Road to Somewhere is part autobiography, part travelogue, part photo book. Its candid writing will enthrall some readers, and infuriate others. But it’s not boring, and it’s certainly thought-provoking. In other hands, The Road to Somewhere might have devolved into poseur prose. But Reeves’ humility keeps that from happening. That lack of pretension—plus his observant eye—keep you reading. Recommended.”

Route 66 News

On The Road for a new century.”

Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Road to Somewhere

Publisher’s Description

The Road to Somewhere is an unusual and seductive book, one that speaks honestly and without pretension about contemporary ambivalence and anxiety, and the countless miles we travel looking for answers. By the time he was twenty-eight, James A. Reeves had bounced through numerous jobs — everything from a carpet salesman and barista to an elementary school teacher and record label owner — eventually finding himself settled in New York in the early aughts, with the country itself on the verge of a breakdown. While working at a design studio and teaching, whenever he could find a few days he would buy a ticket to anywhere cheap, rent a car, and drive in the direction of whatever towns struck his fancy — Truth & Consequences, Delta, Dinosaur — racing blindly through the back roads of the country. He was troubled by his aimless career path and his inability to know what should come next on the way to manhood, to a meaningful life, and he found himself unable to resist comparing his choices to the more straightforward and honorable path followed by his grandfather and, to a lesser degree, his father.

The Road to Somewhere is a bold visual testament to taking it all in, the heartbreaking grit of lonely motels, the inescapable allure of Vegas neon glaze, and the tremendous power of storytelling. In a time when so many invest in virtual relationships, this book is a celebration of personal interactions with strangers and a love song to the physical exhaustion that comes after hours of driving, when the road gets blurry and the voices on the radio sound like raw static.

Much like the national climate of 2004 when Reeves first started this exploration, there’s an increasing polarization happening across the nation today, with an alarming uptick in debate about what the “real America” might be. In the midst of the emotional tirades and fear-mongering, Reeves’s humility is reinvigorating. He drifts along the Mexican border and the Louisiana gulf, rattled by civic decay and reassured by small moments of grace. Now in New Orleans, his is a voice of integrity and civic responsibility that doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out just yet. Reeves’s drives quickly transformed from something observational and political into something much more personal. What resulted from 55,000 miles and five years is a photo-memoir that captures an American moment that is both unsettled and transcendent.

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More Reviews

“Within his expansive, several-thousand-mile journey, Reeves reveals the profile of a young travelling man fighting to understand ideas passed down through his culture and familial rituals, and how they intersperse with the mentation of his own experiences, in his own time, as a man in America. I love this book because of its balanced helping of melancholy and brutal truth of what The Road means and how it has defined this country—both in the past and present. I love this book because it presents The Road as it is: a laborious, 15-round bout with Ali or Frazier; a ferocious ballet.”

The Lit Pub

“Comparisons to Kerouac are natural, but Reeves is a solitary wanderer who traverses the country mostly in the isolation of a rental car. In our contemporary world of entitlement, when adolescence extends indefinitely, through what threshold does one cross into adulthood? The Road to Somewhere offers no solutions but the model of a spirited approach”

Rain Taxi Review

“I didn’t want to get out when the Dollar Rent A Car finally ground to a halt five years later in New Orleans, for Reeves had opened his heart on the pages of The Road to Somewhere and I wanted to keep reading. I truly felt as though I had been in the car with him, so vivid and personal was his writing.”

100 Memoirs

The Manufactured History of Indianapolis reminds readers that histories are not always just made. Sometimes they are made up. Folklore, faded memories, and misunderstandings are an important part of the way people understand a place and its past. Irrational beliefs and fabricated memories feel undeniably real to the person who holds them. In turn, they become part of the reality of how that person experiences the world. The molded memories that Reeves incorporates into his manufactured history prompt readers to interrogate—and perhaps develop—their own potentially apocryphal beliefs about the history of Indianapolis. In this book, Reeves invites readers to develop memories of that which remains unseen.”

Dr. Laura Holzman

A man believes his only chance at justice is taking a hostage and marching him through the streets. An idealistic dancer packs the theater yet she is cast out by the mayor. A sprawling asylum on the west side houses the broken and wounded while a global corporation on the other side of town modifies our brain chemistry and tinkers with the size of cows. Meanwhile an architect searches for ghosts in the basement of a rowdy bar that was once a convent. And last night the police arrested a homeless man when he asked a woman for a quarter to catch the bus. These events bleed into the subconscious of a city, even if we do not see them when looking up at the statues and monuments that commemorate bloody moments as if they happened in a distant land.

The Manufactured History of Indianapolis blends historical fact, urban legend, and speculative fiction into a world of haunted houses, kidnappers, peacemakers, and old-timers like Troublemaker and Carly Dee. This is a wide-angle portrait of what might be the most American city.

Produced as part of a writer’s residency in Indianapolis in partnership with We Are City, the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University, and Indiana University Center for Art + Design. Inspired by the methodology of Surrealism and the madness of Dada, the Bureau of Manufactured History was a collaboration between the composer Oliver Blank and writer James A. Reeves that explored the unconscious content of cities.

Fat City, Louisiana

Combining surreal collage with a short fable, this mural in Fat City invites passersby to reflect on the mythologies we create for our communities and ourselves. Inspired by the neighborhood’s flamboyant reputation in the 1970s, I wrote a story that describes a woman’s search for revelation and Candy Chang created a collage of noir imagery that illustrates her quest using one thousand vertical lines that evoke a curtain of beaded rain, accentuating the dreamlike quality of the fable.

She heard about this place back in ’74 while a snowy television hummed in the corner of a desert motel, half-tuned to a late night talk show, the one where Trini Lopez tells Carson that everybody wants to make it down to Fat City. Decades passed but she never made the trip due to a never-ending series of accidents and decisions, the little victories and deep wounds that make a life and steer us down different roads. Fat City slipped from her mind along with the rest of the world, and she rarely left her sofa, having given up on time and space. Some might call it a crisis of faith but if you asked her, she would only tell you that she was very tired—until last night, when Fat City appeared in a wild dream that shivered with the promise of revelation.

They say Fat City is where the signals of most American dreams originate but she didn’t know this when she pointed her car south. Hope began grinding in her chest like old gears returning to life, pulling her to the bottom of the nation where she raced along a ribbon of concrete that spanned an astronomical lake, a far-out bridge to a future planet. She craved a new kind of electricity, something that might shock her back to life, and she thought she might find it down here, just like Trini Lopez promised. An old philosopher sold her a sno-ball and told her that our souls are made of thousands of tiny sounds. “Sometimes our bodies absorb the vibrations of the people we pass in the street,” he said. “This causes us to dream.” His face looked like an old newspaper and she believed him. He handed her a telescope and told her to listen carefully.

Someday she will be known as the Voice of the Bayou, but tonight she’s just another nighthawk, another enemy of sleep drifting down the boulevard, a lonely soul craving a witness. You’ll find her standing on the corner. She’s the woman who looks like she is waiting for instructions. She listens to the people who pass her by, tuning in to their stories about the old neon names. Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and the Place Across the Street. Now the Place Across the Street is someplace else. Everything changes and perhaps this is how it should be. For a moment she hears the godhead in the traffic on Veterans Boulevard as she imagines the heartaches, catastrophes, and fantasies playing behind those windshields like one thousand secret movie screens. The moment passes. But if you stand in one place long enough and pay attention, something’s bound to happen. You might catch a sound or an image, something that will keep you going. And right now she hears shuffling feet, the scraping of a cane. She watches two ancient lovers drop to their knees like a prayer and carve their names into a patch of wet cement. Malcolm loves Marie. Everything changes, but hopefully some things won’t.

Artwork by Candy Chang. Story by James A. Reeves. Part of a series of murals supported by Fat City Friends and the Arts Council of New Orleans. 3220 Edenborn Ave. Metairie, Louisiana. Acrylic, 52′ x 16′. Installation by Chang and Reeves. Wall preparation and sealing by Bruce James, Barry Patin, and Broq James.

Aleksandr Rodchenko’s portrait of Vladimir Mayakovsky for “Conversations with a Tax Collector About Poetry”, 1926

Published in Moscow in 1918, this short manifesto first thrilled me as an undergraduate student when I began drifting from my studies in film towards graphic design:

“Comrades and citizens, we, the leaders of Russian futurism–the revolutionary art of youth–declare:

1. From this day forward, with the abolition of tsardom, the domicile of art in the closets and sheds of human genius – palaces, galleries, salons, libraries, theaters—is abrogated

2. In the name of the great march of equality for all, as far as culture is concerned, let the Free Word of creative personality be written on the corners of walls, fences, roofs, the streets of our cities and villages, on the backs of automobiles, carriages, streetcars, and on the clothes of all citizens.

3. Let pictures (colors) be thrown, like colored rainbows, across streets and squares, from house to house, delighting, ennobling the eye (taste) of the passer-by. Artists and writers have the immediate duty to get hold of their pots of paint and, with their masterly brushes, to illuminate, to paint all the sides, foreheads, and chests of cities, railway stations, and the ever-galloping herds of railway carriages.

From now on, let the citizen walking down the street enjoy at every moment the depths of thought of his great contemporaries, let him absorb the flowery gaudiness of this day’s beautiful joy, let him listen to music—the melody, the roar, the buzz—of excellent composers everywhere. Let the streets be a feast of art for all.

And if all this comes to pass, in accordance with our word, everyone who goes out into the street will grow to be a giant and in wisdom, contemplating beauty instead of the present-day streets with their iron books (signboards), where every page has been written on their signs by greed, the lust for mammon, calculated meanness and low obtuseness, all of which soil the soul and offend the eye.”

Written by Vladimir Mayakovsky along with other members of the nascent Russian futurist movement, its optimism is infectious—and utterly heartbreaking, considering the shadows gathering in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution that would turn this vision of democratic expression into a dark joke. A century later, Mayakovsky’s salvo continues to circulate through the veins of nearly every idealistic design manifesto, from Ken Garland’s First Things First to the proclamations of Adbusters to the contemporary writing of Mike Monteiro.

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