Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Road works1

I've noticed that many of the books I've enjoyed the most over the past couple of years are the ones with some kind of travel embedded in them.  Of course, there is a bit of movement in virtually any piece of fiction longer than a short story, though in some cases this may all be flashback (here I am thinking of life flashing before the eyes of a firing squad victim in Borges' "The Secret Miracle").  But I have particularly been attracted to books with long-distance travel, often in the form of a road trip.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene was a book that I had remembered enjoying quite a bit when I read it over 20 years ago (in 1992-3 I read all of Green's novels while living in Newark -- really hard to believe it's been that long).  While there are few auto trips in the book, there are several train trips of increasing length (first Brighton then Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express -- long past its heyday) and then a trip to South America (probably by plane rather than boat, but I can't remember if this is spelled out).  As the narrator gets more enmeshed in his aunt's outrageous behaviour, he eventually gets into the smuggling business, which I think entailed him getting into small airplanes down in Paraguay.  Definitely an interesting novel (and still entertaining though I found it a bit more wry than side-splittingly funny this time around) but not one with any substantial road trips.  There is a fair bit of travel (mostly implied rather than shown in Gerhardie's Futility) but the most lively part of the book is the train ride with this crazy extended family, which I discuss a bit here).

I wonder if these fictional journeys can be classified into pilgrimages, where there is a definite end goal to the trip, versus quests.  In virtually all quests, it turns out that it was the journey that is far more important than the eventual destination.  Clambering about the countryside is ennobling, apparently.  The best quest novel I've read in some time is Michael Malone's Handling Sin, which incidentally is also one of the better road trip novels I've ever read (though Faulkner's The Reivers gets a special award for being a road novel taking place long before the advent of the Interstate System).  Handling Sin is a long book (about 600 pages) but a very entertaining one, and actually a product of a humane view on those who depart from the straight and narrow.  Malone has a very generous outlook on the foibles of his main characters, though some of the secondary characters are literally thugs and criminals and some of them are not "redeemed" in any way.

It is quite an epic road journey with Raleigh Hayes sent on a quest (by his father) from North Carolina, to Charlotte, Atlanta and then to New Orleans with many memorable stops along the way.  A few times things go over the top, and there is one somewhat odd section at the end of the second part of the book where Malone spells things out to his "challenged" readers who can't guess the relationship between Raleigh's Aunt Victoria and the bitter (& Black) musician Jubal Rogers.  But highly recommended anyway.  (I wonder if this exuberance and good-natured tolerance will rub off on this fiction piece I am working on.)

To stay in this road trip groove, I decided I would reread On the Road.  My dog-eared paperback is kind of buried at the moment and I was too lazy to find it, so I went over the library.  All were checked out (I guess the movie version inspired people to pick it up?) but oddly the original, original version (not the Visions of Cody version) was in.  It is called "The Original Scroll" version.  I decided to take that out.  A bit later I did borrow On the Road and compared the two versions.  It turns out that On the Road is actually fairly close to the Original Scroll, though all the names were changed, including some place names.  The editors were really worried about libel suits!  Some of the changes are kind of dopey.  The Kerouac character is now of Italian descent and lives with his aunt, rather than French-Canadian, living with his mother.  Some of the drug use was trimmed, and they cut out a lot of material on what William Burroughs was up to, at least according to Kerouac.  But there really doesn't seem to be an advantage to flipping back and forth between the versions, as they are essentially the same book.  I'd say The Original Scroll version is a bit more entertaining and a bit fresher, so I'll just continue reading it.  (Perhaps my single favorite moment is at the end when the editor breaks in and says that Kerouac's dog literally ate the last few feet of the scroll and they had to patch it together from the published (and thus edited) version.)

I suspect Visions of Cody is more substantially different from On the Road, but I just don't have the time or inclination to find out.  I'm not really that taken by the antics of Jack, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of hangers-on, but it moves fairly quickly.  I don't even think I was that interested in them when I was in my twenties when I first read the book, but I can't really remember.  I like road trips just fine, but don't like spending long stretches of time with drug addicts and people who see themselves as the reincarnation of the Beats. I think more than anything else, I have so little sympathy with people who are truly aimless and who go through life without any direction whatsoever.  So On the Road wasn't any kind of rallying cry for me, that's for sure.  Some additional thoughts on On the Road here.

After I wrap this up, I have two more books about travel, and then I'll probably move onto some other theme or topic for a while.  I plan to read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, which I've never read, as well as Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (ditto).  I have some hope they will be at least as interesting as On the Road.  Maybe if I can track down the appropriate journal entries, I will jot down some notes about my most epic road trip from Toronto to Calgary, which we did essentially non-stop in 40 hours.  I clearly remember doing most of the driving through the fog as we rounded Lake Superior, with the fog finally easing up a bit after Thunder Bay. I actually still have (faint) hopes to turn this into fiction (even if the expiry date seems long past at this point), but this trip was far more like a pilgrimage with a fixed destination (ultimately Victoria) rather than a more meandering quest.  In fact, I don't think the main character would or should learn anything particularly new about himself on the trip.

No comments:

Post a Comment