Must-Read Road Novels: 'On the Road,' 'Lolita' and More
From Route 66 to the Pacific Coast Highway, roads are a quintessential American motif, bringing to mind our most cherished values as a nation: freedom, novelty and adventure. Roads and highways likewise run through some of America's great fiction, with heroes and villains hitting the pavement to flee their past, reunite with loved ones, enact revenge or simply stay alive. Just in time for the season of summer escapes, we're rounding up great fictional road trips that remind us of all the reasons to hightail it away.
The road novel to Beat
In telling the story of Sal Paradise and Neal Cassady's drug-fueled pilgrimage across America in search of raw thrills and revelation, Beat Generation poster child Jack Kerouac gave readers a lasting vision of youth and restlessness in mid-20th century America (not to mention an instruction manual on how to have the wildest road trip ever). A literary classic though it may be, the book remains, for many, as incendiary a reading experience today as it was when it was published in 1957.
Diners, drive-ins and abductions
When you think of "Lolita" you probably don't immediately think "road novel," but much of Nabokov's scandalous story is set on America's highways, as Humbert Humbert and his nemesis Clare Quilty—equally infatuated with 14-year-old Dolores Haze as they are—play a coast-to-coast game of cat and mouse. In fact, Humbert Humbert's descriptions of America's landscapes and fluorescent roadside attractions are some of the book's most beautiful passages. Here's a snapshot of the Kansas Rockies: "More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone."
One last hurrah
Some 55 years after the publication of "Lolita," Jonathan Evison casts yet another character with repeat names as the protagonist of a road novel, but (mercifully) the similarities between "The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving" and Nabokov's novel pretty much end there. Evison's hero, Benjamin Benjamin, is a down-and-out schlub who can circle "yes" for just about every item on the Midlife Crisis Diagnostic Checklist: He's divorced, childless, homeless, depressed and tends to deal with his problems by gorging on checkout-aisle candy. Cash-strapped and lonely, he takes a 28-hour night class to get his certification as a health aid and, in due course, gets paired with an impossibly angsty 19 year-old terminally ill M.S. patient named Trevor. The bulk of the novel sees the two taking a road trip across the country to reunite Trevor with his father. Along the way, the endless diversity and weirdness of American culture takes on a new, vital beauty for them both—for Benjamin, because life is starting over; for Trevor, because it's coming to an end.
Every year, droves of Americans flock to the throbbing neon desert oasis that is Las Vegas, and Hunter S. Thompson was no different. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a thinly-veiled fictionalization of his journalistic jaunt to Sin City in the early '70s, is the alpha and omega of orgiastic, dope-addled, hallucinogenic road trip literature. Imagine all the booze, sex and substances you could ever want on a Vegas venture; then double it.
There's nothing remotely traditional about Mark Z. Danielewski's "Only Revolutions." Even if you get past the Crayola-factory-explosion text formatting, you'll have to contend with the fact that its parallel storylines run in reverse, effectively eliminating the concept of a "beginning" and "end." But, for all its experimental bells and whistles, the book is, at root, a romance (complete with allusions galore to "Romeo and Juliet" and "Tristan and Isolde") and a road novel, with its teenage-rebel protagonists traveling across America's heartland while uncovering its harrowing history.
The road of life
In Robert Pirsig's classic "philosophical novel," a father-son motorcycle trek across the Pacific Northwest sets the stage for a dialogue about how to be good in an era of ethical compromise, with detours into Buddhism and classical Western thought along the way.
Go west, old men
We like to think of the road novel as an automotive affair, but, as Larry McMurtry's Western classic shows, some of literature's greatest journeys are set to the ear-pleasing clomp and creak of horses and wagons. Set in 1876, "Lonesome Dove" tells the story of two retired Texas Rangers—the easygoing, philandering Augustus "Gus" McCrae and the emotionally frigid workaholic Woodrow Call—who trek from Texas to Montana to start the first cattle ranch in dwindling frontier country. Before heading out, they make sure to stock up on supplies—in this case, a herd of horses stolen from Mexico and nearly all the male citizens of their hometown.
If only they'd had a hearse: After the matriarch of the Bundren family passes away, her husband and children are tasked carrying out her dying wish—to transport her body from their rural farm to the city of Jefferson, Miss., where the rest of her family is buried. It's a relatively short journey—40 miles—but the Bundrens are an unlucky bunch and, before their wagon rolls into Jefferson, they'll encounter a series of biblically epic calamities that change their lives forever.
Dead end ahead
Cormac McCarthy boils human nature down to its savage essence in this contemporary post-apocalyptic classic, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection. Father and Son, as they're called in the book, traverse a scarred, ash-covered landscape searching for food and fending off bands of cannibals. Their only clothes are the ones they wear on their backs; their only means of defense is a small pistol; their only objective is to stay alive. The story is bleak with a capital B; but it's also a searing summation of all that road literature is about: belief, persistence, survival.
Additional reporting by Corina Arnal.