The ultimate literary road trips

To celebrate John Waters' new book, Carsick, we pick ten of the best books that hit the road hard

John Waters Carsick

When John Waters decided to hitchhike across America, he didn’t deny it that his plan was somewhat... odd. ("I make a living thinking up weird things to do.") Equal parts "what happened" and what he imagined might have happened, the cult filmmaker’s new book, Carsick, out this week, is a self-admitted stunt/experiment that ends up being much more than a wacky coast-to-coast study of America. It's a (hilarious) meditation on fame and other people. Spoiler alert: they’re always surprising. 

Road trips have long provided a framework for writers to plop all their super-smart insights into a handy beginning-to-end narrative, so in this list of great literary road trips we don’t even have to mention Kerouac. Still, even in this age of easyJet, there’s something alluring about spending days, weeks, months or years on the road, whether it’s alone or with someone you want to see if you can stand for that long. You can’t predict who you’ll meet, what will happen or how you’ll react to it. And that element of the unexpected makes for great reading. 

KILLING YOURSELF TO LIVE BY CHUCK KLOSTERMAN

The non-fiction writer of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs bad-assery returns with essays about his cross-country (America) road trip taken explicitly to examine the effect of death on popular culture (music) and implicitly to examine this trip’s effect on Klosterman. So much time alone lends itself to difficult reflections on what might have been if certain fateful events hadn’t occurred, both in history and in Klosterman’s life.

Chuck Klosterman Killing yourself to live

ONLY REVOLUTIONS BY MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI

Regardless of how much you believe it’s ‘not about the destination’, a journey traditionally has a starting point and an ending point – not unlike a story. Danielewski, of the bizarrely structured House of Leaves, however, naturally fucks with this: the book, a narrative of a trip told from two perspectives, has two front covers, and each of the protagonist’s narratives runs from one. Danielewski’s meticulous structure plants much for the reader to discover, and, obviously, the end becomes the beginning becomes the…

ONLY REVOLUTIONS

THE DEATH OF BUNNY MONRO BY NICK CAVE

If books and movies are to be believed, when your whole life falls apart, the best thing to do is going on a reckless, unplanned road trip. Cave’s mid-life-crisised protagonist is reeling from his alcoholism and wife’s suicide, so the natural course of action is to take his son on a road trip as a serial killer comes to town. Mortality – it’s coming for us all. 

The-Death-of-Bunny-Munro-Nick Cave

FLAMING IGUANAS: AN ILLUSTRATED ALL-GIRL ROAD NOVEL THING BY ERICA LOPEZ

The dearth of female road trip narratives has been much lamented – why do they always have to be in pursuit of love? etc. Lopez’s graphic novel is a direct response to all that, complete with the zine-y charm and filthy language one expects of piece of art that turns white male privilege on its head. 

flaming iguanas

THE DEATH OF GRASS BY JOHN CHRISTOPHER

Alongside the on-the-road-to-find-myself narratives are the on-the-road-to-escape-the-apocalypse narratives, and this is the original. When a virus kills all species of grass in Asia and Europe (and the US and Australia desperately start trying to close their borders off from it), an engineer, his family and a friend make their way across a Britain descending into chaos in an attempt to stay alive and not starve. We suppose there’s also some self-discovery thrown in there, though it’s more of the ‘what I do when I’m faced with imminent death’ variety. 

DeathOfGrass

THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING BY JONATHAN EVISON

Back to middle-aged men learning things after traumatic events befall them. When the devastated Ben signs up for a ‘Fundamentals of Caregiving’ course, he’s tasked with helping an angry, disabled 19-year-old, and they end up going on a road trip to do some kind of reckoning with a dying father, as you do. High jinks follows by way of quirky people met along the way, and the lessons learned about dealing with difficult relationships would be cliché if they weren’t so well done. 

REVISED FUNDAMENTALS of caregiving evison

HOBO BY EDDY JOE COTTON

A teenager frustrated with his parents’ way of doing things leaves home, hops a train, is gone for six years. The memoir Zebu Recchia wrote from the first three weeks of journal entries of this experience became a cult classic for its humour, sex, and refreshing Beat-esque mix of frankness with poetry. Recchia/Cotton embraces the tramp lifestyle fully, and his insights into an underground world of drifters are always original and often surprising. 

eddy joe cotton

THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES BY ROBERTO BOLANO

Many first-person narratives swirl in intrigue around the ‘Visceral Realist’ poets at the core of this post-modern romp through time and space. A pair of bohemian elitists, the two poets are enigmatic, absurd and complex, a meditation without resolution on the nature of literary movements, figures and works. Although the journey sometimes appears to have a clear destination, that illusion is again and again proven to be just that.  

the-savage-detectives-roberto-bolano

THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA BY MARY MILLER

When a teenage girl’s family decides to pack up and haul across the country in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, they attempt to convert as many Waffle House diners to salvation as possible along the way. But as the Rapture gets closer and closer, Jess gets more and more doubtful. Miller’s sharp coming-of-ager is layered on top of an outrageous family vacation narrative, and it all culminates in a delicate balance of hilarity and poignancy. 

THE LAST DAYS OF CALI Mary Miller

ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF: A ROAD TRIP WITH DAVID FOSTER WALLACE BY DAVID LIPSKY

Fans of DFW shouldn’t miss this evocative take on the road-trip genre. Although the book consists just of conversations transcribed, they’re brilliant conversations transcribed – full of the same reflection and intelligence you’d expect from a road-trip book by the man himself, with a candor that sheds a lot of light onto Wallace’s fiction, essays and biography. 

dfw David Lipsky
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