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Book review: In Michael Zadoorian's 'Leisure Seeker,' what a trip

About one-third of the way into Michael Zadoorian's The Leisure Seeker — and at about the same point in an elderly couple's cross-country trip the book describes — the two of them look at slides from a similar, long-ago trip.

They see a picture of their best friends, a couple their own age who traveled in the same brand of camper (the title's Leisure Seeker) and had parked it close enough that the "extended canopies (were) almost touching.''

In a lot of novels, this would be a signal that the real story was about to begin. You prepare to read about who cheated on whom, the compromises that kept them together, the fallout from their destroyed friendships.

But in Zadoorian's book what happens is this: Ella once again breaks the news to her Alzheimer's-afflicted husband, Jim, that their friends died years ago.

" 'Aw, Christ,' he says, clutching his hand over his mouth.''

This is when you realize that this book actually is about what a lot of books claim to be about but aren't: ordinary people and, more than that, ordinary, decent people.

Depending on your age, Jim and Ella Robina may remind you of your- self, especially if you are from the Midwest, ate a lot of bologna sandwiches and hamburgers, said "conked out'' to describe exhausted, overly medicated sleep. ( It happens a lot.)

Or, if you're lucky, they'll remind you of your parents. Because Jim and Ella are good spouses and parents, true to one another and just about everything else.

"We are the people who stay,'' Ella, the narrator, says at one point. "We stay in our homes and pay them off. We stay at our jobs. We do our thirty and come home to stay even more.''

The action comes out of their decision (or, Ella's really, because she calls the shots) to just this once not stay where they are supposed to. Defying the wishes of their doctors and adult children, they take off from their home in Detroit for Disneyland on Route 66.

It's a bland, middle-American vacation plan. It becomes an adventure because the two of them are also facing the most ordinary problem in the world: growing old and dying.

Ella acts as navigator though racked by cancer pain or doped up on painkillers; Jim drives the entire way (the only slightly incredible element of an otherwise right-on portrayal of Alzheimer's) though he sometimes forgets his wife's name and can't wash without her help.

Jim's occasional wanderings are scary at home, terrifying in a desolate patch of Texas; Ella's fall at a campground in New Mexico turns into a desperate struggle to survive and, just as important to her, keep the trip going.

None of this would hold our interest if Ella really was a bland person and really had led, as she says, "a completely unremarkable life.''

She is alive enough to appreciate treats such as the hot dogs in Oklahoma that come loaded down with chili and a "yellowish vinegar coleslaw . . . I have to say, the Okie Coney Island looks absolutely delicious.''

Route 66, which, like them, is fading from the prime it reached in the middle of the last century, is the perfect trigger for such moving reminiscences. "Nature is slowly reclaiming it. Vegetation creeps in from the edges, narrowing it like an artery.''

Wanting more passages like this and more details of Jim's and Ella's rewarding lives, you race through this book. Because, despite all the descriptions of bodies and landscape, the book's message is uplifting: Ordinary, dutiful lives are not necessarily boring ones.

Dan DeWitt is a columnist in the Hernando bureau of the Times. He can be reached at (352) 754-6116.


The Leisure Seeker

By Michael Zadoorian

William Morrow, 288 pages, $24.99

Book review: In Michael Zadoorian's 'Leisure Seeker,' what a trip 03/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 23, 2009 10:18am]
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