Book Review by DONALD O’DONOVAN
People I Met Hitchhiking on USA Highways is not a novel, and Eric Chaet is not a writer. Eric Chaet is a man with a mission, and People I Met Hitchhiking is a record of his travels, presented without the artifice of fiction, as he set about fulfilling that mission. Chaet roved the length and breadth of America with a bag of sunflower seeds and a vitamin bottle filled with water, stapling his hand-made silkscreened posters to utility poles.
Chaet’s mission? To change the world. The posters: “The bearded face…full of dissatisfaction, indignation…too simplified to be anybody’s face in particular.” Above the face, printed letters: “SEEK TRUTH – DEVELOP CAPACITIES.” Other posters proclaimed: “HELP ONE ANOTHER SUCCEED”, “DESPITE INJUSTICE & NORMAL MADNESS, CHANGE YR SITUATION & OUR WORLD FOR BETTER”, and “YOU’RE LIKE ME IN THIS RESPECT—WHAT YOU DO HAS ITS EFFECT.”
A driver who gave Chaet a ride remarked, “I think that what you are doing is courageous and noble, sir, but do you think you have any chance at all of success?” Eric Chaet’s answer: “I think that, before I began, I had no chance of success, but that, now that I’ve begun, I’m changing the odds.”
Eric Chaet didn’t do this important work on a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation or any other foundation. He washed dishes, worked in factories and taught math at a Navaho reservation to keep himself alive while he wandered, like a 20thCentury Johnny Appleseed, stapling his posters to utility poles all across America.
I found People I Met Hitchhiking on USA Highwaysto be a very companionable book. Although Chaet insists that he is not a writer, his prose has an immediacy and a quality of empathy that puts you there. You’re on the road with Eric Chaet, as you read. ”I drank some water from one of the vitamin bottles & ate a handful of roasted soybeans–& slept at the edge of a small town, in tall weeds near the highway.”
He has an eye for beauty: “The two rivers of the Milky Way appeared, disappeared & reappeared ahead of us. A satellite traced a geodesic curve across the sky.” And as the title implies, Chaet meets a number of interesting people on the road. Bernie, a turkey farmer who lost 45,000 turkeys when they were smothered after retreating to a corner of their cage, frightened by an owl. Worcek, a trucker who kept two sets of books, and Bob, a balding, childlike hitchhiker who “generally went wherever the drivers of the vehicles in which he hitched rides were going.”
People I Met Hitchhiking on USA Highways is an inspiring book, a book that is very much needed in this dark and apocalyptic time. Eric Chaet is an American Original, and a seed man. He plants seeds that stimulate us to think in other categories, to think outside of the box. “YOU’RE LIKE ME IN THIS RESPECT—WHAT YOU DO HAS ITS EFFECT.” His message to us is that you can in fact change the world, one person at a time—beginning with yourself.
Eric Chaet’s books can be found at Amazon. His poetry has also been posted at DDA here and here. More of his work can be found at 100 Peculiarly Useful So-Called Poems.
Donald O’Donovan is a novelist, optioned screenwriter, and voice actor with film and audio book credits. His novels include Tarantula Woman, The Sugarhouse, Night Train, and Highway. Excerpts from Night Train have been posted at DDA. He lives mostly in Los Angeles, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org