As he crisscrosses America -- driving in search of the present, the past, and himself -- Larry McMurtry shares his fascination with this nation's great trails and the culture that has developed around them. Ever since he was a boy growing up in Texas only a mile from Highway 281, Larry McMurtry has felt the pull of the road. His town was thoroughly landlocked, making the highway his "river, its hidden reaches a mystery and an enticement. I began my life beside it and I want to drift down the entire length of it before I end this book." In Roads, McMurtry embarks on a cross-country trip where his route is also his destination. As he drives, McMurtry reminisces about the places he's seen, the people he's met, and the books he's read, including more than 3,000 books about travel. He explains why watching episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show might be the best way to find joie de vivre in Minnesota; the scenic differences between Route 35 and I-801; which vigilantes lived in Montana and which hailed from Idaho; and the history of Lewis and Clark, Sitting Bull, and Custer that still haunts Route 2 today. As it makes its way from South Florida to North Dakota, from eastern Long Island to Oregon, Roads is travel writing at its best.
McMurry is probably one of the last living people who has gone on an American cattle drive. His first was at the age of four. Cattle went from being driven on the range to driven on highways, and so did McMurtry. The majority of this book is his ruminations and memories of places he's been and people he's met, things he's done and things he's seen. Sounds slow and boring, right?
Nope! It was a good quick read, but entirely engaging. What i enjoyed best about it (and I don't know how McMurtry would feel about this) is when he muses about different travel writers. He talks about books that he's read and other writers he's met - I started out keeping a mental list and eventually started keeping a written list on the inside of the back cover. Roads is an incredible Reader's Advisory tool for travel books - even the ones he doesn't personally like! His complaining about William Least Heat-Moon is what made me go and pick up Blue Highways, one of my all time favorite books.
But McMurtry has obviously regained his love of books and reading and the literary allusions in this book had me making notes again, as he mentioned many writers who came from the various states he drove through here. Many of them I already knew, but even so, those allusions were the spice the narrative needed. His mention of Teddy 'Blue' Abbot's WE POINTED THEM NORTH prompted me to go take another look at my own copy of that book. I've had it for a few years now, but have yet to read it. Soon. I was surprised when he spoke of Michigan writers that he only mentioned Hemingway and an obscure writer named Janet Lewis. I looked up her books, but they didn't look like my kind of stuff. Jim Harrison only rated a footnote. McMurtry admitted he didn't read any Harrison until after this book was finished, quite a surprising gap from someone who reads so widely and voluminously.
The first McMurtry book I read was THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. It remains one of my favorites from this prolific author.
McMurtry does not really come across as much of a "people person." He may in fact be more comfortable with books than he is with interpersonal dealings, and ROADS serves to emphasize this. He is more interested in covering ground than he is in meeting people as he passes through multiple states. He says early on: "I doubt that I will be having folksy talks with people I meet as I travel." And he does not. Which is okay. McMurtry is, after all, a 'book-ish' type, perhaps even a bit shy. I can relate. In fact I may try those other so called 'memoirs' he's written, one about the literary life, and another about his life in films as a screenwriter. I can stand a little name-dropping.
Somehow though, after I had passed the midway point of the book, I warmed up to it a bit more. I don't know if he actually started to write something worth reading or if I had simply gotten used to his writing style, but every once in a while I would think, "good point," or "I didn't know that."
And in the very last pages of the book, his journeys brought him somewhat close to my stomping ground and one paragraph made me want to start road tripping as soon as possible:
"Throughout the afternoon and the next morning the realization slowly grew on me that I had accidentally found something I hadn't really expected to find: the dream road, the good-as-it-gets road, the ideal path into the heart of the great steppe. U.S.2 had everything-- the widest vistas, the greatest skies, and more history than any one traveler could possibly hope to exhaust: Lewis and Clark, the Missouri, the mountain men, the Cheyenne, the Sioux, Sitting Bull, the Yellowstone, Teddy Blue."