The road novel is often described as a quintessentially U.S. American genre. In an interview about the road trip narrative, historian Allen Pietrobon traces it as far back as wagon trains and even George Washington. From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, white male authors have been writing road novels since the advent of the highway. But what about writers of color, women, and LGBTQ+ writers?
As Pietrobon points out, before the Civil Rights Act, road-tripping for people of color was perilous. I would argue that the hazards persist to this day. For instance, in Gretchen Soren’s Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights and Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, the authors take a critical look at the dangers of the road for Black Americans.
With this in mind, there are a ton of road novels that depart from the tradition of writers like Kerouac and Steinbeck. These contemporary road novels consider the ways a person’s body influences how they are able to move across the roadways. They also encourage readers to think differently about the road novel as an American genre.
It’s summertime, and the road beckons. The U.S. is tentatively opening back up, but there is still a lot of fear around flying with COVID-19 out there. Because of this, a lot of people are considering going on road trips. Before you hit the road, take a look at these books that engage the road novel genre (even while some of them are memoirs and others are genre mash-ups). They’ll challenge you take a detour from Route 66 fantasies and think deeply about the asphalt arteries that link this country’s vital points to one another.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
As a family of four drives from New York to Arizona, their journey across the USA becomes intertwined with everything from a growing rift in the family to international immigration politics. The novel interweaves various ephemera — such as snapshots and song lyrics — with the story itself. Numerous reviewers have described Lost Children Archive as a great American novel, some even acknowledging it as a road narrative. Luiselli’s masterful tale of family and nation is a fascinating and important road trip novel for our times.
Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones’ coming-of-age novel follows a family of werewolves as they traverse the southern United States. The unnamed protagonist learns everything from werewolf etiquette to the importance of not wearing spandex during a transformation, picking up bits of family history as he travels the highways with his aunt and uncle. Typical of Jones’s work, Mongrels could be classified as a bildungsroman, horror, or even a dark comedy — and, of course, it is also a road novel. Regardless of how you shelve it, the book is unexpectedly tender in its treatment of adolescent insecurities and family loyalty.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s National Book Award–winning novel is a haunted by racism. Sure, there are ghosts: two African American boys who were killed during their adolescent years — one murdered in a “hunting accident” and the other mercy-killed after a failed prison escape. But as the teenage protagonist, Jojo, and his troubled mother make the dangerous drive to pick up Jojo’s father from prison, the perils of the road feature prominently. As the family attempts to navigate their way home, Ward’s novel explores systemic racism while engaging the nefarious undercurrents of racism so often set aside in the conventional road novel.
The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang
“Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.” So begins Chang’s humorous exploration of family, finances, and failure. The Wangs vs. the World follows the Wang family as they drive their one remaining car (the only one that wasn’t repossessed) from Los Angeles to New York in the wake of the financial crisis. The novel’s first sentence hints at the wry humor to follow; its second sentence belies the novel’s interest in the larger context of global capitalism and immigration. It’s a thought-provoking book masquerading as a light summer read, and it’s worth every page.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
What better genre mash-up than road novel and YA post-apocalyptic fantasy? While there has been some controversy surrounding Roanhorse’s (Ohkay Owinge Pueblo) use of Diné mythologies, Trail of Lightning is a suspenseful page-turner of a novel. The world has been rocked by natural disaster, and 16-year-old Maggie Hoskie’s latent powers reveal themselves after her grandmother’s murder. As she travels the roads of the crumbling U.S. hunting for the monsters (literally) that killed her grandmother, Maggie’s journey becomes far more than a simple revenge tale. Fair warning: this is the first book in a series that hasn’t yet been completed.
America for Beginners by Leah Franqui
When Pival Sengupta leaves Kolkata to embark upon a cross-country road trip from New York City to California, she is motivated by more than a thirst for travel. Instead, she is searching for her son, who came out to his parents a year before he disappeared. Pival’s husband told her their son was dead, but her trip is borne of her refusal to believe he is truly dead and her desire to understand. As her road trip grants her a deeper understanding of the United States, Pival also gains insights into herself and her son. This moving novel is told with a combination of humor and beauty.
The Last Great Road Bum: A Novel by Héctor Tobar
Héctor Tobar’s novel blurs the lines between fact and fiction. He takes real-life writer Joe Sanderson’s papers documenting his journeys across the USA — and, more broadly, the world — as the foundation for a novel about Sanderson’s travels. Interestingly, at the heart of the novel lies an investigation of the privilege that has historically been so central to the beat generation and to “classic” U.S. American literature more broadly. Tobar, who is an award-winning novelist and journalist, sifted through Sanderson’s personal papers for over a decade in order to write this novel. It’s a freewheeling travelogue on the one hand, and a thoughtful exploration of masculinity, race, and the literary world on the other.
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad was diagnosed with leukemia in her early 20s and spend nearly four years surviving an array of treatment options. Between Two Kingdoms chronicles what happened after those years as Jaouad took to the roads in search of the life she’d been forced to put on hold. This memoir follows her as she seeks out people who corresponded with her during her treatments, tracing her journeys on the road alongside her journey toward coming alive again.
Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar
Randa Jarrar is a queer Arab American Muslim woman who is also a performer and comedienne. This collection of essays is told in a poetic and irreverent style. Taking the body as the lens through which to explore a host of issues ranging from joy to race to sexuality, Love is an Ex-Country is a flat-out good read. It is about a literal road trip across U.S. America, but it’s about so much more. Not only does Jarrar write with a fearless honesty, but there’s also an urgency and timeliness to this book that makes it incredibly compelling.
Paola Ramos’s book on contemporary Latinx identity is organized by region (Southwest, South, Midwest and Northeast). Finding Latinx integrates detailed descriptions of place with interviews and striking photographs in its exploration of the various factors comprising “Latinx” identity. Unconventional, for sure, where the road narrative is concerned, but this book is a testament to the richness of individual experience and its integral role in cultural identity formation.
There’s one more book I have to mention, even though it’s specifically not a road novel. Mia Bay’s Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance is a powerful collection of essays exploring what it means to travel globally as a Black woman.
If you’re craving more books about the road, here are some suggestions that should get you rolling on your readerly journey.