To Hell and Back: 6 Calamitous Road Novels

To Hell and Back: 6 Calamitous Road Novels

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The all-American road read gets gritty with two debut novels that make “On the Road” seem like a Sunday drive through the country. Thad Nodine revs up a more demented “Little Miss Sunshine” with “Touch and Go” and Bonnie Nadzam updates the “Lolita” story with half the pervy stuff and twice the gloom in “Lamb.” These two novels join a long and winding tradition of twisted road tales: people hightailing it away from failures, only to collide with the unforeseen wreckage ahead. So lose the snacks, kill the radio and buckle up for this mix.

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    1. As I Lay Dying (Movie Tie-in Edition)

    When the matron of a rural Mississippi farm family breathes her last, her husband and five children are left with one task only: get her and her casket to Jefferson, Miss. But a biblical rainstorm is on the way, and for the Bundren family — equipped with only a horse-drawn wagon — this simple trek becomes a Sisyphean battle against nature. Flooding rivers, collapsing bridges, two botched surgeries and a devastating act of arson are just a few of the disasters that plague the Bundrens. Faulkner’s elegiac saga paves the way for later road novels that veer off the beaten track.

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    2. Touch and Go

    Kevin is a recovering crack addict in his late twenties who also happens to be blind. When his housemate and longtime crush Isa is charged with delivering a handmade casket to her dying grandfather across the country, Kevin jumps at the opportunity to join her and leave his regrets behind. But it’s late in August 2005, and as the crew of addicts, sponsors and foster children make their way from southern California to Florida, they unknowingly drive straight into the most catastrophic hurricane in American history. Our blind narrator’s unique sensitivity to sound, sensation and intuition revitalize the travel narrative–so often a feast for the eyes–in an unforgettable way.

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    3. Lamb

    Recovering from a ruined marriage, failed career and now the death of his father, David Lamb is just about ready to give up when a rootless teenage girl named Tommie bums a cigarette from him outside a convenience store. Soon, he wins her trust and the two head west out of Chicago, hopping motels and settling finally in a forest cabin outside Des Moines. Electrified by their escape, Lamb and Tommie believe they have found both the companionship and sense of adventure missing from their lives. But as the search for Tommie back home intensifies, Lamb must come to terms with the ramifications of his actions and the troubling truth of his intentions.

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    4. Angels

    Leaving her husband and their trailer park behind, Jaime Mays boards a cross-country Greyhound bus out of Oakland, Calif., in search of a better life for her daughters. Her plan quickly sours when she pairs up with the charming but troubled Bill Houston. From Pittsburgh to Chicago to the barren Southwest, Denis Johnson takes us on a nightmarish tour of God-fearing alcoholics, fingerless thieves, heroin junkies and a tuxedoed rapist. While some scenes in this twisted road novel can be near-unreadably grotesque, Johnson’s arresting prose keeps the narrative moving at high speed.

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    5. Busy Monsters

    Debut novelist Giraldi gives the road novel a fantasy makeover with this zany, and often ridiculous, adventure story. When his beautiful fiancée absconds just two months shy of their wedding, “memoirist of mediocre fame” Charles Homar is determined to get her back. Unfortunately Gillian has fallen in love with a wealthy scientist who’s made a name hunting down mythical creatures, and together they’ve set out on a mission to capture one called the Kraken. Lovesick and vengeful, Charles recruits his childhood friend Groot and a trigger-happy Navy SEAL to help him pursue his lover from coast to coast, encountering Bigfoot, UFOs, Chinese prostitutes and New Jersey bodybuilders along the way.

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    6. Lolita

    Nabokov’s infamous classic is very much a road novel. After young Lolita’s mother is killed, the 14-year-old nymphet is whisked away by literature’s most famous child molester on a cross-country tour of America’s small towns and seedy motels. During this year-long vacation/abduction, Humbert Humbert lavishes her with gifts and sweets while threatening her with reform school if she tries to escape. Cataloging menus, merchandise and Lolita’s many charms with the same obsessive affection, Humbert Humbert’s voyage out West is also, for readers, an excursion into crushing obsession.

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