Where is the Road Novel?

Even for those of us who haven’t read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), the novel has an iconic status as the first of the great twentieth century American road novels. Around the same time in the 1950s we get Saul Bellow’s The Adventures Of Augie March (1953). Other narratives that come to mind are Blue Highways (1982) by William Least Heat-Moon, Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) by Robert Pirsig, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test(1968) by Tom Wolfe. I call them narratives, because the latter three are supposed to be creative non-fiction –a combination of reportage and autobiography, written using the strategies and techniques of the novel. All of them are about letting loose, with lots of sex, booze, and drugs as part of the ride, or in the case of Pirsig’s book, lots of philosophizing.

These books are from the period of the mid fifties to the mid eighties, and cover the cultural shifts we identify as the Beats, the Hippies, the Anti-War and Civil Rights movements. It was all Us and Them, and Them were most of the Establishment, who supported War and were always against freedom and self-expression.

Where are today’s Road novels? There have been some road movies, but not many road novels. Part of the problem is that life seems too complicated to reduce to a simple Us versus Them formula, as in the movie EASY RIDER (1969). And maybe the social landscape is totally different from a generation or two ago. It’s harder to identify the enemy. It’s even harder to identify exactly what we want. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006), a post-apocalyptic journey by a father and son, is so bleak and dark that it hardly qualifies. There are no discoveries or hopeful insights in the McCarthyesque landscape. Nothing to look forward to. The book’s popularity may in part be a consequence of the suspicion that culturally we are very close to being in that terrible place described in the novel. Why would you ever take a journey in such a world of no escape? Where would you go?

The road novels seem to be a product of a simpler time in modern culture.

The roots of the road novel are the quest narrative, which goes back a few thousand years (Homer, anyone?), and closer to our period the picaresque traditions of the 17th to the 19th century. The word picaresque is derived from the Spanish picaro and refers to narratives about rogues, often likable, on a journey to better their fortunes. The narratives were often comic satires that showed up various moral and social flaws. Examples include Moll Flanders (1722), Tom Jones (1749), Huckleberry Finn (1885). On the other hand, the quest narrative is a more sober affair, involving questions of appearance and reality, truth, and self-realization. Examples include Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East (1932), or, more recently Pilgermann (1983) by Russell Hoban and The New Life (1994) by Orhan Pamuk. The quest narrative lacks the roguish, bawdy, and satirical elements of the picaresque; it is a search for the meaning of life, or, at the very least for personal transformation. In film, the quest narrative shows up in the STAR WARS movies.

The picaresque or road novel is about escape or adventure.

With the invention of cars and motorcycles, and the endless highway system, we get the North American version of that jaunty ride. We still have our dependence on the car, yet somehow the road novel has fallen somewhat out of favor. There are a few notable exceptions: Sideways ( 2004, Rex Pickett), Motel Life (2007, Willy Vlautin) and Angels (2002, Denis Johnson). But these novels have never broken into the big time, though SIDEWAYS became a popular film, and Johnson’s novel has achieved cult status among writers (e.g., Chuck Palahniuk).

Two other notes. Why are there so few Canadian road novels? I can think of one, Volkswagen Blues (1984), by Jacques Poulin. Joseph Boyden’s excellent novel Three Day Road (2008), doesn’t really qualify, despite the title. In Canada, we have highways, cars, a sense of adventure, and lots of things to make fun of, and yet, we don’t favor the road novel.

Also, I can’t think of any road novels by women. I’m sure they exist, but I’m unaware of them. Quest novels, yes, and novels of travel and discovery, yes. But not road novels. Could this be the end of the road novel?

Maybe I can be set straight by someone more knowledgeable.

Or, it may be that after McCarthy’s The Road, we need a new kind of quest narrative.

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