Bibliophile reviews Roads: Driving America’s great highways by Larry McMurtry

Year published: 2000
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: USA, 20th century

At the end of the second millennium acclaimed author Larry McMurtry set out to drive along some of America’s interstate highways. Each month he would choose one or more interstate, fly to the end of the road or a handy stop along the way, rent a car and drive home to Texas. Most of the roads he chose were ones he knew already, but a few he had not been on before. The trip was mostly made without any stops other than the necessary ones for sleep, food or restroom breaks, and generally at or above the maximum speed limit.

If this sounds like an unlikely premise for a travelogue, I agree that it is, but McMurtry has managed to write a readable book about it nonetheless, as have others, like the previously reviewed books by Rosie Thomas and Tim Cahill.

Roads is not a book for people who like authors who stay in one place for long stretches of time and really get to know a place. Neither is it for people who want to read about positive travel experiences written by optimistic and upbeat writers.

If you like the “getting there” part of travel as much or more than the “being there” part, if you appreciate the experience of just driving somewhere without feeling the need to stop at every roadside attraction (as people will do when they have been there a dozen times before), you have experienced the American interstate highway system first hand or want to find out what it is like, you like to learn about new authors and books or new things about authors you know, and you can tolerate writing that is occasionally grumpy and judgmental and frequently negative, but also sometimes funny, insightful and even inspiring, I recommend this book.

As can be read between the lines of the above description, this book is an uneven read. It gives the impression that the author didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with it. The core is his often brilliant descriptions of what it’s like to drive, aimlessly or purposefully, along the interstates, to the point that the roads become like characters in a novel, each with a distinctive personality, but then it jumps to recommendations or short discussions of authors (and their books) who live or lived in places he passes on his journeys, to his likes or dislikes of places, to personal introspection and recollections that sometimes are connected to the journey, but often have nothing to do with it - just the kind of thoughts that often pop into one's head when driving alone. He does seem to be drawing a parallel between journeying on the roads and his own journey of rediscovery after he suffered what he calls “loss of personality” following his heart surgery in 1991, but those passages are too few to really constitute a major theme in the book.

I enjoyed reading Roads on some levels, having had personal experience of some of the roads and places he visited, but on other levels I found it confusing, due to the reasons already stated above. It is going on my keeper shelf for now, as it is the most modern American road trip book I own and I would like to have it as a reference for a road trip I am planning in the USA, but as a reading experience I can only really give it 2 1/2 stars (out of a possible 5).

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Now I think I need to go and read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, about driving the little roads of the USA.

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