Mary Miller's wonderful debut novel The Last Days of California is a Rapture-inspired cross-country road trip from the eyes of a teenager. If you're driving anywhere this summer, make sure to bring a copy along.
This is what I like most about road books: people on the run. While many of these books involve narrators who are having an existential crisis (usually involving the disaffection with a 40-hour workweek and/or a romantic relationship), my favorite are those of a more serious nature—e.g. ‘I just killed my lover and need to get out of town ASAP.’ So, a warning: most of these books are on the darker side. And I’m sorry that there are only two women on this list. In my defense, women who write about the road don’t seem to do it as often in book form. My very favorite road trip stories—Amy Hempel’s “Jesus Is Waiting,” “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, and O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—are short stories and can’t be included here, but please seek them out and read them. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
1. 501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine
I had difficulty choosing between this one and Things I Like about America, which is equally excellent. Both are collections of essays about Ballantine’s experiences as he moves around the country in search of the ideal American town, a place where he can write and stay sober and meet the dark-haired, book-loving girl of his dreams. Not surprisingly, the towns he arbitrarily selects are full of threadbare rooms and people who love nothing more than their television sets. Suitcases fall on his head from the overhead bins of buses; he eats packaged food and tries to avoid prostitutes. Ballantine does his best to live an authentic life—the fact that he comes up short, every time, does nothing to make his search any less affecting.
2. The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin
I love all of Vlautin’s novels and this slim one is my favorite. The Motel Life (greatest title ever?) begins with a hit-and-run accident that keeps brothers Frank and Jerry Lee on the move—staying in cheap motels, drinking themselves halfway to death. I’ve read this novel three or four times and it makes for a great afternoon even though I’m disappointed in everyone at the end, every time.
3. Cruddy by Lynda Barry
A few days after getting busted for dropping two hits of acid found in a friend’s shoe, sixteen-year-old Robert Rohbeson begins to write her memoir: Once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill in the cruddiest part of a crudded-out town in a cruddy state, country, world, solar system, universe… The cruddy girl named Roberta was writing the cruddy book of her cruddy life and the name of the book was called Cruddy. The story she ends up penning isn’t about her teenage escapades with her friends, though, it’s about the cross-country murder spree that she took with her father five years earlier. Cruddy is chockfull of sociopathic characters, but the writing undercuts the ugliness with its charm. And there are pictures, too, and a map with a key to indicate, among other things, Saggy Underwear Man’s House, Dead People We Left Behind, and All The Places Where We Got High.
4. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson isn’t thought of as a “serious writer,” whatever that means. I imagine it’s because he makes so much money. I grew up reading Stephen King, though, and literary snobbery was never my bag. I love this book (I’m also a fan of A Walk in the Woods, in which Bryson sort-of hikes the Appalachian Trail). I like seeing small-town America through Bryson’s eyes, and learning about history all over again.
5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It took me a long time to get through The Road, a post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son pushing a shopping cart south, through the deserted and charred landscape, to escape the cold. I love McCarthy’s sentences but can’t read too many of them at once. After a few pages, I simply stop understanding the meaning of words. I black out, basically. But on the sentence level—on the paragraph level—he really astounds me. This book is dark and enormously repetitive, but it’s also beautiful. An ex-boyfriend used to read this book to me at night before we went to sleep. I could follow along better when he read it, but he broke up with me around page 100 and I had to finish it on my own; it nearly broke me, which seemed exactly right.
6. Lost Princess of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Please indulge me here: I’m wild about L. Frank Baum. As far as I understand, Baum never intended to write fourteen books about Oz but he was broke and needed the money. After the sixth installment, “Emerald City of Oz,” he shut the land of Oz off completely and then had to find a way around the barrier he’d erected. They aren’t books I would have like as a child but I seek them out now when I’m in need of a happy ending. There’s comfort in knowing that the characters will escape unharmed: they’ll cross the deadly desert safely; when they’re hungry, trees full of ripe fruit will appear. In The Lost Princess of Oz, Ozma is stolen from her bedchamber and a search party sets out across the land to take on Ugu, an angry shoemaker-turned-magician.
7. The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield
This 1989 novel published by Knopf is currently out of print. I found a copy at a used bookstore and it may be my best blind purchase ever. The book begins with our narrator, a brilliant and psychopathic eight-year-old named Phillip, traveling in the backseat of his mother’s car: “No matter where we went we seemed to be where we had been before. We were more than a family, Mom and I. We were a quality of landscape. We were the map’s name rather than some encoded or strategic position on it. We were like an MX missile, always moving but always exactly where we were supposed to be.” Even when Phillip and his mother come to rest, they don’t stay that way for long.
8. Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain
Nine days after the towers fall, twenty-year-old St. Germain is told that his mother has been shot and killed, apparently at the hands of her fifth husband, Ray, who has taken the pickup and left town. Years later, having made a new life for himself in California but ultimately unable to move on, St. Germain journeys back to the scene of the crime—Tombstone, Arizona—where he confronts the people and places of his past.
9. Fay by Larry Brown
Brown, a Mississippi native and firefighter turned full-time writer, wrote about fishing, beer drinking, and dirt roads without falling prey to the Southern clichés I dislike so much (mama and cornbread and cotton fields as stand-ins for substantive character development). In this novel, a beautiful but naïve teenage girl leaves behind a family trauma in the hills of North Mississippi and hitchhikes south to the Gulf Coast. A state trooper named Sam picks her up and brings her home to his wife, where things go well, for a while.
10. Nine Months by Paula Bomer
In this novel, Bomer explores the question of whether a woman can have it all (and angers many female readers in the process). Sonia, relieved to find that mothering was getting easier as her sons gained independence, planned to reclaim the artistic ambitions she’d held before they were born. But her dreams are shattered when she finds herself pregnant with a third child. Ruling out an abortion, Sonia attempts to reconcile the impending birth with her feelings of frustration, but the lure of escape proves too strong. Withdrawing the family’s savings, she sets out on a wild and very pregnant cross-country road trip. I read Nine Months on an airplane and it kept me thoroughly oblivious to the usual armrest struggles and the ceremonious unwrapping of smelly sandwiches, which is, of course, the height of praise.