Readers who wish to travel America without leaving the couch have always had a vast tradition from which to cull. While you may prefer to watch the mountains and the desert going by from the back of a horse (Lonesome Dove) or atop a raft (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), the most common way to go is, of course, by car.
From Route 66 to the Pacific Coast Highway, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac, writers have always been drawn to the freeways and back roads of the American landscape.
Here's a sampling of some of the finest examples of the American road trip book, broken down into four categories.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck The author and his poodle take to the road in 1960 to discover what defines America.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, Bill Bryson The veteran travel writer takes on his own country in the late '80s, seeking out the "real" America, not the tourist version.
Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, William Least Heat-Moon Set in 1978, Heat-Moon traverses the country using only rural roads.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe Published in 1968, in perhaps the first example of what came to be called New Journalism, the author chronicles Ken Kesey and his followers (the Merry Pranksters) as they travel across the country in a multi-colored school bus, experimenting with drugs.
Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, Chuck Klosterman In 2005 the author embarks on a lively road trip to the sites of rock star deaths, resulting in both a travelogue and a history of American music.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov Published in 1955 and best known, of course, for its provocative subject, the novel is in large part comprised of a road journey, as the protagonists travel across the country on a tour of motels.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner — The author's famous 1930 novel is distinctive in this category: the road trip the family of Addie Dundren's family must take to deliver her body to the town of Jefferson is less than 50 miles, yet it might be the most "epic" road trip novel we've got.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison This 2013 novel has the down-and-out protagonist, in an attempt to do something good, stuck driving a terminally ill teenager across the country.
(distinction gets a little sticky here, as these writers fictionalized their real-life experiences. We might call these classics roman à clefs)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, Hunter S. Thompson Published in 1971 and the definitive example of "Gonzo Journalism," Thompson lambasts the 1960s counterculture as his characters journey to and around Sin City.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig Part road novel, part philosophical inquiry, this 1974 classic holds the Guinness Book record for most rejections (the manuscript was rejected by 121 publishers before being picked up).
On the Road, Jack Kerouac Published in 1957, it might just be the most famous American road trip novel, a thinly fictionalized account by one of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation.
This article was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the
September 2014 paperback release.
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