I’ve just finished Sara Taylor’s wonderful new novel ‘The Lauras’ and, while I’m processing how to write a review that encapsulates all my reasons for loving it, this seems a good moment to revisit other favourite travel books. Fiction travel that is, and, as I’m slightly obsessed with ‘The Lauras’ I’m going to narrow this even more to mean USA road trip novels, a sub-genre of which I’m particularly fond.
Well, it may not a be a classic yet, but this is the book that started me off on the topic of road trips. In it, Ma and Alex travel from West Virginia across the length and breadth of America. They spend time in Florida where ‘the waves rolled irregularly onto the beach, a moving mass of grey that seemed to be alive and breathing.’ They camp out in the desert ‘this landscape was steeper, scrubbier, the land more bone than flesh, more rock than earth. At first I thought the whole place just looked dead, kaput. But the arid land had a dusty, painted beauty of its own, and it crept into my bones as I grew familiar with the trails and overlooks and the clear bareness of it all.’ As well as the stopping places however, there are also the hours and days spend in the car: ‘Time felt funny then; maybe it was the constant forward motion. I felt like we’d been the car for years, not days. Maybe it was like being in a rocket, ageing at a different rate to everyone on earth. The blacktop rolled away under us and I felt time rolling away with it, diffusing into nothing.’ It’s what I read road trip books for.
Another new addition to the genre. In Kelman’s ‘Dirt Road’ Murdo and his father are on the road to escape grief. They leave Scotland at the start of the novel, numb from the loss of half their nuclear family. The first thing for them to do on arrival in Memphis is take the bus to their American family, and the trip to Alabama itself reveals a lot about their relationship and ultimate ends. Set throughout the Southern American states, ‘Dirt Road’ has the two elements that make a wonderful road-trip novel: the counterbalancing claustrophobic moments of static existence and the frightening yet compulsive attraction of a life that just keeps on moving (click here for my full review).
Possibly a more controversial choice than the more recent items on the list, Lolita isn’t just a book about inappropriate love, it’s also a novel of movement. In the second half of the novel, Humbert Humbert and his young companion travel through America in search of anonymity and freedom from societal conventions. The combination of freedom and claustrophobia is added to the other tensions of the novel as both driver and passenger realise that, while the roads seem to go on for ever, the two of them are trapped both by each other and by the wider world. As long as road trips rely on stops at motels and in small towns, no traveller can truly escape from reality.
Making things a bit more wholesome, Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Carol’ has its two lovers escaping stifling convention on one of the most wonderfully aimless road trips in literature. Free of constrains and of other companions, Carol and Therese are able to luxuriate in each other’s company. Finally, it seems like loose ends will be tied up and that peace will be achieved, albeit through non-stop movement. Underlying the wonderfully slow pace of the journey however, are the typical Highsmith touches. Why has Carol packed a gun? Is there anyone following them? How long can the idyllic journey last? The tensest possible description of a holiday spent by two people happily in love, Therese and Carol’s road-trip is yet another reason to love this novel. (You can see my full review here).
A Nobel prize winning road trip classic, Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an epic novel of journeying through America. The reluctant migrants that make up the book’s massive cast desperately travel West in search of the promised land, or, at least, a land that might in some way sustain them. There are wonderful passages that describe the epic tragedy of the landscape traversed, matched by the pressing need of the families that cross it: ‘Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels. Listen with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards. Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses…’ ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a powerful story of the personal and the national, showing that great road-trip novels are about much more than individual quests for meaning.
Some novels just have to be included don’t they. Personally, I’ve tended to have trouble with the Beat authors. Mostly I think this is because I usually identify with women in books, and I rather feel Kerouac wasn’t writing with me in mind. Still, ‘On The Road’ is an established classic and, more so than in any of Kerouac’s other works, I can see how the hypnotic writing swirls though it. As we’re told ‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road‘. ‘On the Road’ is a book that readers fall in love with and at least a part of that love has to be for the vast landscape the characters cross and recross as they meet new and old friends and discover new and old meanings to life.
I realise that, technically, the Huckleerry Finn’s adventures take place on the great Mississippi rather than along the roads of the other novels in this list, but Twain’s 1884 classic more than deserves its place in the list. I didn’t read this until I was an adult; as a child I enjoyed Tom Sawyer’s parochial small-town adventures far too much to want to leave with Finn. Fortunately, the novel waited for me and as soon as I actually started reading I realised what all the fuss was about. I’m aware that the book is still under attack from readers and book promoters because of the language it uses when some characters describe Jim, and I’d definitely argue for it being taught with sensitivity and historical context if being used in the classroom. When I read it though, I do so for the stout-hearted hero who is able to see the hypocrisy of his own society and form his own views on human worth, all while travelling through a hostile and abusive society. River-trip writing at its finest.
At this time of year, holidays can feel a long way away. In any case, I live in England and I can’t drive so there are some holiday experiences that I can only really get through books. It’s a good thing I have so many to keep me going through autumn re-reads! Let me know which others I should add to my list; if there’s one thing I always want more of, it’s a good armchair road-trip.