Sixty Years of On the Road
September 5th, 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a novel that captured the spirit of the Beat Generation and continues to seduce readers today with its impulsive energy - a carefree adventure of hedonism and spirituality unencumbered by planning, unconcerned with consequences.
The idea of the American Road Trip popularized by Kerouac is very appealing - crossing the vast country, sampling the many pockets of existence (and food!) this land has to offer, living out of a suitcase, leaving stifling routines behind, propelled by the romantic idea of freedom the road trip promises.
There are already a bazillion lists of road trip books - many curated by travel agencies and publishers - featuring both fiction and nonfiction titles, and On the Road is on each and every one of them, along with Travels with Charley, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc etc. And while I loved Travels with Charley (and all Steinbeck ever), the lists I have found are kind of limited to the white male experience. And that's fine - white men have every right to manifest their destiny, but I have chosen to celebrate the anniversary of On the Road with a selection of road trip novels offering a broader range of perspectives. Kerouac may have inspired a generation, but that generation is not our generation, and a little variety is always appreciated.
Not every road trip depicted here is going to make you want to grab your car keys and follow in its characters' footsteps - some are very bad trips, indeed. But who wants to go on an actual road trip - you can't read and drive at the same time, after all. So stay put, travel vicariously with these books and save yourself the gas $$ and road rage.
This book comes out on September 5th; the exact anniversary of On the Road. It's a powerful, beautifully-written story about two young children and their black mother; a family broken by addiction and crime, traveling to the Mississippi prison where their white father is about to be released, then traveling back home together. A tough and realistic read despite the spirits of the restless dead as fellow-travelers.
1 / 11
A mother wakes her teenager in the middle of the night and, leaving her husband and West Virginia behind, they embark upon a road trip through many years and many states, eventually all the way to Canada, as "Ma" reveals her past to her agender child Alex; stopping to visit old friends, make restitution for past acts, and fulfill some promises. It's a coming-of-age journey for Alex while their Ma has one in reverse.
2 / 11
Every road trip has unexpected mishaps: crummy lodgings, inedible food, cannibals...Trudging through the ruined American wasteland might not be the ideal family vacation, but when life gives you apocalypse, make apocalypse-ade! A father and son journey through horrors, searching for a place to call home in a story of love and hope, family and survival that'll make all of your travel-fatigued squabbling seem trivial.
3 / 11
Road trip to the afterlife! A very unusual story about an evangelical family's journey from their home in Alabama to California, where the second coming is scheduled to take place and the faithful will be raptured up into the heavens. It's also a coming-of-age story of a fifteen-year-old girl experiencing an emotional road trip; meditating on faith, family and the future as she journeys towards uncertainty.
4 / 11
The funny half of this book involves a woman murdering her husband and traveling to Hollywood to become a star with his head in a Tupperware container on the passenger seat beside her, ditching her six kids with family in Alabama. What’s the unfunny half about? Racism. The coming-of-age story of a 12-year-old boy living in Alabama during George Wallace's Governorship witnessing injustice. See? Murder is much funnier.
5 / 11
A completely whackadoo novel combining satire, SF, adventure, mystery, romance, social commentary and giant sloths in a near-future, post-apocalyptic American road trip tale led by an amnesiac maybe-messiah. Even more manic and surreal than Hunter S. Thompson’s experiences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it has been described by its author as "a techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville." 'Nuff said.
6 / 11
The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel
An alternate history novel in which the Underground Railroad is represented as a physical train, facilitating escaped slaves on their journeys to freedom through an America profoundly divided by racial issues, where each stop on the train’s route reveals a different expression of racism and inequality, from the overt to the insidious.
7 / 11
This book contains both physical and cultural road trips, but above all, it’s a complete mind trip involving the appearance of the Twin Towers in South Dakota twenty years after their fall, the manifestation of Elvis’ stillborn twin brother all grown up, and an uncharted highway extending between the coasts in an examination of American Identity viewed through a kaleidoscope of pop culture, history, and "what-ifs."
8 / 11
R. S. Belcher
Not a road trip novel per se, but this one's too clever in concept to omit, and it's road trip-adjacent: a dark urban fantasy featuring an ancient order of knights known as the Brotherhood of the Wheel, entrusted with protecting travelers on the roads. Their intervention would have been appreciated in most of the other books on this list, but they have their hands full here with the ghosts and serial killers and all.
9 / 11
I'd planned to confine this list to the American Road Trip experience, for maximum On the Roadishness, but this novel was too charming to omit: a Finnish photojournalist hits a hare with his car while on assignment and abandons his entire life on the spot, nursing the injured animal back to health and making a companion of him as they wander across Finland having adventures; a mid-life crisis made adorable.
10 / 11
Happy birthday, On the Road! You don't look a day over fifty!
11 / 11