Each year, the Mariposa Monarch (or Monarch Butterfly) migrates in its tens of millions, travelling over 2,500 miles from Eastern Canada, to one forest in Morelia, Central Mexico. If you visit this forest during spring time, you will find the greens of the trees smothered by a rich orange. At first you will not be able to spot any of the Monarch Butterflies, but wait a minute, hold your breath and stand patiently against the warm bark of a pine tree, and you’ll suddenly spot a great swarm of butterflies jump up and scatter around the high branches, like birds after a gun shot. Only then will you realise that the orange leaves are in fact, the Canadian butterflies that have travelled thousands of miles, and now hang from these branches like orange rain.
It’s moments like these that make travelling a special experience. It’s a rite of passage that has become tainted by popular opinion and clever-dicks recently; we’re living in times when you can’t mention you’ve been to India without someone gurning ‘Gap Yah!’ at you as though that’s the height of comedy. Sod people like that though, some people are happy to waste away at home, but they’re not the people for me, and they certainly weren’t the people for Jack Kerouac.
Everyone has to take a trip at least once in their life, even if it’s as simple as hiking across the Lake District. A good book can be a companion to all aspects of life, and travel is no different, so, to (hopefully) inspire you, here are a few of the best novels whose protagonists find themselves stepping out onto the road.
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
Many of McCarthy’s novels deal with people on the edges of society, searching for something and somewhere new, and each of his novels are brilliant. It would have been easy to mention McCarthy’s phenomenal 2006 novel ‘The Road’, a novel which details the plight of an unnamed man and his kid as they ‘carry the fire’ across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, I’d like to draw your attention to one of McCarthy’s lesser known works, ‘Outer Dark’. Published in 1968, this was McCarthy’s second novel and set the standard for many later works, such as Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy.
The book is set around the turn of the twentieth century and recounts the exploits of a woman who bears a child by her brother. Initially the brother hides the young infant in the woods and leaves it to die, however the child is taken and both brother and sister set out on separate journeys to reclaim it. Unbeknownst to them, a trio of uncanny characters, wearing clothes dug from a grave are perusing them. It’s dark but beautifully well written. It’s also rather short for a McCarthy novel (252 pages), so if you’ve never read Our Greatest Living Writer, this is the perfect place to begin.
Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
Before Bukowski, there was John Fante, and before Fante came Céline. ‘Journey to the End of Night’ is the supposedly autobiographical account of Céline’s early life, with the author appearing under the guise of Ferdinand Bardamu. It’s an incredibly funny book, but Bardamu is at times nasty and callous. His descriptions of Paris blow Hemingway’s romantic ideals out of the Seine. Bardamu’s Paris is a place where people attempt to blow up their mother-in-laws with sticks of dynamite attached to chickens.
Before all this, though, Bardamu takes part in WW1, gets sent off to colonial Africa, becomes lost in the jungle and made prisoner aboard a slave ship, goes off to America and works briefly for the Ford Motor Company, before eventually wandering about France as a doctor. All the while he finds himself perused by Robinson, his old army compatriot who turns up even in the depths of the jungle. It’s an extremely nihilistic work that makes ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ look sane by comparison.
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
The late Angela Carter was one of Britain’s finest ever novelists. Like all great people, she was taken before her time, and passed away from cancer in 1992, aged 51. ‘Nights at the Circus’ won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize upon its publication in 1984 and has gone on to be honored with a plethora of awards since. It’s a fantastic work of feminism and magical realism, detailing the life of Sophie Fevvers, who claims to be a cockney virgin, hatched from an egg and with fully developed wings.
You could argue that the novel isn’t exactly a road trip, but, look at the part in which the circus travels by train across Serbia before being attacked by bandits and eventually captured by escapees from a woman’s prison, whilst one of their group becomes a shaman. Read this and tell me you’ve ever read a finer adventure. Carter’s prose is beautiful as it is imaginative, ‘Brisk, bright, wintery morning, under a sky that mimics a bell of blue glass so well it looks as if it would ring out glad tidings at the slightest blow of a fingernail.’
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Obviously, ‘On the Road’ belongs on this list, right at the very top, higher even than the title, such has its legacy been on the modern traveller. However, me telling you to read ‘On the Road’ would be redundant, as I presume if you’ve got this far through the article, you’re already a fan of good literature, and if so, ‘On the Road’ should have been one of the first novels you devoured. ‘The Dharma Bums’ more or less picks up where ‘On the Road’ left off, and if you squint, the characters are more or less the same. This time though, the Kerouac-esque Ray Smith is concerned with following the path of Buddhism to enlightenment. This involves climbing Californian mountains, and making a den out in the woods behind his childhood home, and the obligatory combination of pot, poetry and wine. If you read this book and don’t want to become a better person, you have a heart carved out of volcanic stone. If for nothing else, read it for beautiful prose like ‘the stars were icicles of mockery.’
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
More a novel about integration than travel, The Lonely Londoners takes place in London (obviously) and details the lives of a group of West Indian immigrants who were part of the Caribbean Diaspora. The novel follows these immigrants who occupy the fringes of society as they try to integrate into a racist society and be taken seriously. It’s a poignant book, but also extremely funny, as the boys concentrate just as much on romancing English women and ‘coasting a lime’ as they do on finding employment. There’s also an unfortunate (if you’re squeamish) scene with some pigeons.
Selvon made sure to write the whole thing in a creolized form of English, so ironically, the native British reader is equally displaced, and the book is as much a journey for them as it is for it’s Caribbean protagonists.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
DeWitt’s Sister Brothers is almost a minimal Cormac McCarthy that erupts from time to time, like dynamite, into beautifully poignant descriptions of the American mid-west. There’s less ideological posturing than in a McCarthy book, although the subject matter is similar. The brothers Sisters are Eli and Charlie, notorious bounty hunters operating during the time of America’s Gold Rush. What starts as a simple task to head to California to retrieve a wayward man, soon becomes a quest for righteousness, as Eli begins to question the way he has lived his life and ponders the sins of his past.
It’s the sort of novel that will stay with you for a long time, yet will take mere hours to rip through. Also of note is DeWitt’s first novel ‘Ablutions’; equally good, but bloody grim.
Tom Ward’s first novel, ‘A Departure’ does it’s best to rip-off all of the above, and is available here.