I like to think that Montaigne, an inveterate traveler, would have shared my enthusiasm for Peter Hessler’s “Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.’’ Title notwithstanding, it is the nation, not the writer, that is most in motion in this funny, understated, well-reported book. With millions of people abandoning villages for cities each year, China is experiencing the largest internal migration in history. Hessler, by contrast, mostly stays put. He sticks around long enough to speak the language, make friends, max out on Beijing, and acquire a country home. Eventually, the neighbor kid he drops off on the first day of school grows into an overfed, awkward-years preteen; and so, more or less, does the nation. As a journey, “Country Driving’’ is both business and pleasure — a stop-motion portrait of one of the most influential and chameleon places on earth.
As readers of “River Town” and “Oracle Bones” are well aware, Hessler is remarkably observant and, when the occasion calls for it, exceedingly funny. He’s at the top of his form in the opening section, in which he drives great distances on some of China’s endless miles of new highways. His description of the Chinese driver’s test is worth the price of admission, but there’s more, including a visit to the little settlement outside Beijing where he spent much time for several years, and another to a booming new industrial city. Everywhere he goes, Hessler finds much to amuse and inform the reader.
Yardley reviewed COUNTRY DRIVING when it first came out, and you can read the review here.