Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist McMurtry (Duane’s Depressed, 1998, etc.) takes a rambling bookman’s holiday on America’s great interstates, hoping to “reread some of these roads as I might a book.”
Surprisingly for someone whose work brims with colorful characters that almost burst through the confines of the printed page, McMurtry is uninterested in meeting and depicting people in the areas through which he travels. Instead, he tries to “treat the great roads as rivers, floating down this one, struggling up that one, writing about these riverboats as I find them, and now and then, perhaps, venturing a comment about the land beside the road.” Landscapes, natural or manmade, elicit some of his sharpest descriptions. Although he scorns Missouri and the hot, woebegone town of Why, Arizona, his prose vibrates with rhapsodic intensity when explaining why the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is so stunning, or how the light in Tucson flows over the mountains like “a river of bright air.” An antiquarian book dealer for almost as long as he’s been a published novelist, McMurtry sprinkles comments on numerous authors along the way, ranging from the overrated (Hemingway) to the now-neglected (e.g., Hamlin Garland, William Allen White, Janet Lewis). Neither his eye nor his memory misses many of the ironies in modern life—such as Hollywood’s new breed of 20-something studio executives, or barefooted rock star John Mellencamp driving him from the Indianapolis Airport in his new Jaguar. Most movingly, places evoke in McMurtry melancholy recollections of loss (such as the world of slow dirt roads in which he grew up in Texas) and even (in Hagerstown, Maryland) the realization, following heart surgery, that “a part of me—perhaps most of me—seemed to have died, been lost, vanished, slipped away.”
Seldom deep, McMurtry’s driver’s-seat ruminations are unlikely to win him new fans, but his prose unwinds in a deceptively simple, winning manner.