Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Nic's 2011 Reading Journey - Book 2 (a first diversion)

Having made the decision to head West in my Reading Year journey, from Tim Gautreaux's Louisiana into Texas, I then spent far too long mulling over an appropriate Texan read. While I was thinking about it, I made my first permitted diversion - to read a book about journeying. The way I see it, any time I fancy reading a book about journeying this year as an interlude to my round the world journey, then that's just fine. And let's face it. I can make the rules as it's only me playing.

The book in question was "Roads" by Larry McMurtry. It came to mind because McMurtry is a Texan book legend in various guises. First and foremost he is the author of many novels and screenplays many of which are set in Texas (and many of which are now out of print in the UK sadly). His masterpiece is the epic Pulitzer-Prize winning Texan novel, Lonesome Dove which spawned a similarly epic mini-series starring the likes of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Angelica Huston. Secondly he is the owner of a colossal bookshop in Archer City, Texas where he still lives and works.

If I picked Lonesome Dove for my Texan book, I'd still be there in months, but I realised I had an unread copy of "Roads" in my bookcase, so I thought I'd honour Texas' most celebrated author by reading that.

In "Roads" McMurtry sets out to enjoy America from its interstate highways - eschewing the standard "backroads" approach and deliberately limiting his numerous 2-3 day trips to bombing down the length of the country's major arteries. It's a bizarre concept for a travelogue and it threatens to give a very rushed and blinkered view of the States.

The saving grace is McMurtry's open and self-effacing attitude towards the comfortable and infinitely achievable journeys he has planned, "I have been impressed by the extraordinary stamina of the real explorers, from Mungo Park to Wilfred Thesiger. In contrast I hardly feel my little spurts along the interstates deserve to be called travels at all". He goes on to explain his attitude to roughing it in the great travel writing tradition, "Hardship is not something I seek, or even accept. I cheerfully confess that if the Hotel du Cap in Cap d'Antibes were a chain, I'd stay there every night".

"Roads" is thin on geographic description - other than some beautiful accounts of the prairie landscape. But McMurtry's journeys are brought alive by the author's anecdotes and memoir pieces - most of which are book or film related. There's lots of entertaining name-dropping and the book doubles-up as a guide to the literature of many of the American states (which is handy if you're a bookseller planning a reading journey across the Continent). Here's one of my favourite moments:

"My bitter dislike of Arlington goes back ten years, to a day when I embarrassed myself by getting hopelessly lost in it while attempting to take the world-famous globally traveled author Jan Morris to lunch. Not long after this I complained about Arlington in a novel called "Some Can Whistle", but nobody read that novel so no one heard my complaint".

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed "Roads" even if I wouldn't personally stick to McMurtry's straightline routes. It's certainly made me want to read more of McMurtry.

(And seriously, he has written A LOT - here are a few more names to conjure with in case you fancy digging some out - The Last Picture Show, Streets of Laredo, Terms of Endearment, All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers, Moving On, Brokeback Mountain (screenplay)).