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Four Classic American Road Novels (and a Picture Book)

by Tereza Jarnikova Mar 28, 2013

It’s getting warmer out, and I’m starting to get restless for movement, so I’ve been going through my bookshelf and remembering road novels I read as a teenager. Here are some of them. Of the books on the following list, four are novels written before 1980. The last is a picture book from 2013. There’s a continuity to horizons, it seems.

Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon

In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon set off to circumnavigate America via backroads. He called them “blue highways,” because backroads and other smaller roads appeared in blue in the road atlas. From this stems the name of the account of his journey, and as a portrait of place it’s marvelous. On the way, he meets hanggliders and prostitutes and farmers and records his conversations with them verbatim. The resulting book, accompanied by occasional photographs, is pleasant to read and think about.

He regales us with experiences we would likely rarely otherwise see — he watches maple syrup being made and goes fishing on a rickety commercial fishing boat on a wild and frothy sea. To me, one thing was slightly jarring — in 1978, William Least Heat-Moon is complaining about the rising tide of modernity washing away remnants of things that were once beautiful in the American landscape. We’ve heard that one before — maybe this is a conversation every generation has.

The Wayward Bus, by John Steinbeck

To call The Wayward Bus a road novel, we must take the words “road” and “novel” literally. This is in fact a novel, and there is a road, but the idea of linear motion (which seems to me inherent in the phrase “road novel”) is somewhat absent. Steinbeck’s original conception of this book was in Spanish, and in Spanish he had titled it El Camion Vacilador. In Steinbeck’s words: “The word vacilador, or the verb vacilar, is not translatable unfortunately, and it’s a word we really need in English because to be vacilando means that you’re aiming at some place, but you don’t care much whether you get there. We don’t have such a word in English.”

So it is with The Wayward Bus — of course it’s ultimately trying to go somewhere, but its passengers (and the town of Rebel Corners, California, that the bus passes through) are somewhat stuck in place. Very little actually happens during The Wayward Bus — it’s instead a sort of moving portrait of stagnant lives within Steinbeck’s America. It goes without saying that Pulitzer winner and Nobel laureate Steinbeck writes this portrait with skill, grace, and a strangely comforting sadness.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig’s account of his motorcycle journey across America with his son can probably not be solely constrained by the label of “road novel.” He takes detours from this overarching narrative course to talk about mental illness, about philosophy, about family relationships, and, yes, about how to properly approach the mechanical problems of motorcycle maintenance.

Ultimately, this book is more a philosophical treatise set against the scenery of a motorcycle trip than a novel. Though the narrator has very fervent ideas that perhaps few readers will agree with fully, his rambles are nonetheless captivating. I didn’t know you can use the sound a motorcycle engine makes to discuss what it means to live a good life, but you can.

I got an old copy of this book from a very close friend many years ago, who had gotten it in turn from someone else, and after a while I gave it to my little brother. It’s that kind of book.

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

No list of American road novels would be complete without Kerouac’s famous work about crisscrossing the USA with Neal Cassady. Wildly popular and hugely influential upon its release, it’s still cited as one of the pinnacles of Beat literature and is surely worth reading for that reason alone.

However, I must be honest here: Though I loved On the Road when I was 15, its stories of drugs, sex, and manic drives no longer completely resonate with me. Kerouac roars about the freedom of a wide horizon but ultimately seems to have no idea what to do with it, and for that reason I haven’t really returned to this book since my teenagehood. For me, the nail in its coffin was the filming of an eponymous blockbuster movie starring that girl from Twilight in the only female role.

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, by Mike Brodie

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity is not in fact a novel, nor is it a classic, but it’s most definitely American. It’s a collection of the photographs of one Mike Brodie, who once hopped a train as a teenager to visit his friend two states away. The train was going the wrong way, and so he began to crisscross America via rail. On the way, he picked up an old Polaroid camera and the nickname Polaroid Kidd and took hundreds of photographs of railways and dirty kids.

Ten years later, he’s put away his railroad atlas and taken a job as a diesel mechanic, but this archive of photographs is the result. Dirty jeans, freight cars, setting suns — the American dream these photos show might be familiar, but they show it in a way that beggars parallel. (Feel free to buy this book for me for Christmas.)

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