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E s s a y R e v i e w s R o a d N a r r a t i v e s a n d W e s t e r n I d e n t i t y N e i l C a m p b e l l “But no matter, the road is life,” Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road (1957), and it is this powerful notion that lies behind a group of recent books that either travel the roads of America or comment on their rich cultural significance within the American psyche (199). Of course, the literature of the road has a long tradition in the European “picaresque,” as Rowland A. Sherrill’s book Road-Book America reminds us, allowing a multiplicity of genres to interact around notions of movement, migration, and travel, but road literature has become a form most often associated with the United States and the West especially. In fiction particularly, there has been a line of landmark texts encapsulating the possibilities of the road as a locus for initiation, adventure, education, and yearning, but increasingly fiction has fused with other genres such as travel writing, memoir, history, and autobiography in the creation of a “transgenre” crossing between different styles of writing and blurring generic boundaries. The books under consideration here demonstrate and explore these writing styles and confirm both the persistence of “road themes” in American culture and the notion that it is within western American “literature” that their diversity has found a comfort­ able home, inspired by the wide-open spaces and the connotations of freedom, discovery, and individual endeavor embedded in its complex differentiated spaces. Even the slightly world-weary Larry McMurtry begins his book Roads with the statement, “My destination is also my route, my motive only an interest in having the nomad in me survive a little longer” (12). The “routes” within these books take the reader across western America, in pursuit of a “New West,” to discover “an Empire Wilder­ ness,” or often, as in McMurtry’s case, for the pleasure of the journey itself, as if to reconnect with some primal sense of adventurous mobil­ ity and possibility contained in movement itself. Sherrill’s concept of the “new picaresque” is a useful guiding prin­ ciple for what these books, in their different ways and with their vari­ ous approaches, seek to achieve, since it utilizes the road as a space for 280 WAL 36.3 FALL 2001 encounter and accumulation of experience, while allowing the narrative to flit between places with little necessity for depth or detail. In this way these books connect experiences, relate peoples, and speculate about the past and the future in a manner that might be less likely within other forms of writing, for at the heart of the genre is its expansiveness and its unwillingness to be settled and fixed. The form and content are, therefore, well matched here. Sherrill, in one of his more theoretical moments, sums this up quite well: “[I]t is clear that this dialogical, interrogatory, and translative art is less substantive than formal [,] . . . [w]orking on the social edges, crossing human borders, tem­ porarily transgressing on the other” (167). Sherrill’s “new picaresque” provides a different way of seeing the postmodern world without despair, for it permits a sense of “new civility” based on “dialogue” and learning to live with the “other,” as he puts it (170). That is, the “road­ work” of journey, encounter, alliance, interrelationship, and contesta­ tion might form some basis for living differently in America moving people beyond their established patterns of being to other perspectives so as to overcome “the problems of what to make of and how best to live in the pluriform human theater that is their country, indeed how to manage life in relation to their neighbors’ stark othernesses” (171). All these books touch on these aspects of “road-work,” although it is only Sherrill’s critical work that analyzes it in any depth. Timothy Egan’s Lasso the Wind, Robert D. Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness, and Larry McMurtry’s Roads provide the raw materials of travel writing upon which...


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pp. 279-290
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