Summer is half over already, and if you’re like me, all of your big plans for summer travel have fallen through. (Just kidding! I have small children, I never plan to take them anywhere because: disaster.) The good news is that it’s never too late to live vicariously through a book about traveling. Below, a list of nine great books about that summer-break favorite, the road trip — excluding the obvious ones, like “On the Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” These books take you down the roads less traveled, literally and figuratively.
Donald Ray Pollock
Though not a road-trip novel in the traditional sense, “The Devil All the Time” follows a large cast of characters in the 1950s Midwest, most of whom are itinerant. They are all demented, vicious, deeply disturbing people: a serial-killer couple, some lecherous preachers, and a young man who is, at base, kindhearted but has seen and experienced too much. These separate narrative threads weave slowly, terribly together, and you can’t help but feel a looming sense of dread as you realize these people will converge upon each other soon enough. But you also can’t turn away from the carnage.
Nicole Brossard, translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
An intriguing, circular, novel-within-a-novel that not only tells a story but also examines the very mechanics of language and narration. Separated into three distinct stories, “Mauve Desert” starts with teenage Mélanie driving across Arizona to get away from her mother and her mother’s girlfriend. In the second story, translator Maudes Laures is agonizing over how to translate the story of Mélanie from the French; the third story is Laures’ completed translation. This is more of a cerebral book that plays with the way translation will ruin or enhance an original text — it’ll be slow at first, but by the last story it’s an incredibly interesting way to approach storytelling.
How to even categorize this? It’s like a graphic novel, although it has more text than illustrations. It’s like a regular novel, but the narrative is as energetic and easily distracted as the heroine. Speaking of whom: her name is Tomato Rodriguez and she decides to ride a motorcycle across the country for fun, but she’s never even ridden a motorcycle before. This book is kind of crazy but a lot of fun, and highly raunchy. If you’re into that sort of thing.
The sequel to “The Bean Trees” continues the story of Taylor and her 6-year-old adoptive daughter Turtle. When a lawyer and member of the Cherokee Nation discovers that Turtle, also Cherokee, isn’t exactly legally adopted, events are set into motion that cause Taylor to panic and whisk Turtle off on a months-long drive through the West in an attempt to get “lost,” so to speak. Kingsolver always writes with a lot of heart and a lot of beautiful metaphor, so to say this book has both in spades isn’t surprising. But there’s also an undertone of dry humor that makes this book so entertaining — when, for example, [SPOILER] a bimbo named Barbie steals all Taylor’s cash, you are both heartbroken and also chuckling to yourself, because of course Barbie did that.
Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman
In the style of “On the Road,” this Québcois novel is about a man with a bad case of writer’s block who decides to drive around in search of a brother he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Along the way, he picks up a young woman of “métis” (European and American Indian) background. The story is long and slow and not much happens. But rather cleverly and subversively, Poulin sprinkles the novel with historical anecdotes about the violent European takeover of America from aboriginals, and raises issues of identity and race that are always important.
William Least Heat-Moon
It’s 1978 and Heat-Moon’s life is coming apart, so he decides to get away for a while. He packs up his van and embarks on a years-long road trip around the U.S., sticking only to small back roads — the titular blue highways, because on old printed maps they were always designated by the color blue. The small towns he encounters are vintage Americana now, and the characters he meets — a hitchhiker, a prostitute, a runaway, a monk, to name a few — are unforgettable. The narration is interspersed with Heat-Moon’s own heart laid bare as he tries to process where his life is going. “Blue Highways” is considered one of the first and one of the best nonfiction travelogues. Instagram influencers take note: This is how it’s done.
It’s 1977, the summer after America’s “bikecentennial” craze, and Terri and her college roommate have decided to bike the original Oregon Trail across the country, starting in the west. They don’t get very far: Less than a month into their excursion, while still in Oregon, they are attacked in their sleep by an axe-wielding stranger. Impossibly, they both survive the assault. Fifteen years later, Terri returns to central Oregon to retrace the incident that almost ended her life — and even though the statute of limitations on attempted murder has passed, she does wind up finding who she believes to be her assailant. This, by the way, is nonfiction — yes, Terri bears the scars to prove it, and the eloquence and poetry she brings to the horrific event is utterly captivating.
Sarah Vowell is an accomplished writer and actress, who spent time as a contributing editor for “This American Life” and is the voice of Violet Parr (the daughter) in Disney/Pixar’s “Incredibles” films. She’s witty and quirky and the kind of person who, if she turned to you on a random Saturday night and said, “We should go on a road trip to visit all the places that presidents have been assassinated,” you would immediately nod your head and grab your toothbrush. Fortunately, she took that trip already and wrote about it in “Assassination Vacation,” so that you don’t have to abandon your career and family to join her on this weird romp around the country. In her distinct voice, she relays interesting, little-known facts about presidential assassinations, and draws links to pop culture.
In 1992, Chris McCandless graduates from Emory University, cuts off ties to his family, and hitchhikes to Alaska. He survives alone in the wilderness, using a van as shelter, for roughly three months — and then he’s found dead. McCandless has been a polarizing figure; some people think he was foolhardy and arrogant, others find his mission and tragic death heroic and romantic. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, the author’s investigation of McCandless’ life and untimely death is fascinating, right down to the theories of how he actually died. (Krakauer, by the way, is an excellent nonfiction writer; “Into Thin Air” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” are two other books of his that are worth reading.)
More from Make It Better:
- 9 Best Books Recently Made Into Movies
- 4 Books to Add to Your Summer Reading List
- Best-Selling Author Emily Giffin’s Guide to a Weekend in Nashville
Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.