10 retro road trip novels guaranteed to give you itchy feet

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A tattered old map, a flask of strong coffee, a set of wheels and a cassette of hardcore power ballads (ahem) – oh, how we love a road-trip! And as for company, whether we’re camped on the roadside or boarded up in a seedy motel, there’s nothing better than a good book. Happily, in the last fifty years or so, many of our literary heroes have taken to the highways. Here’s a quick look at just a few of our favourite novels written in homage to adventures, both good and bad.

1. On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Okay, okay, it’s an obvious choice, but it’s a cult classic for good reason. If you like jazz, and poetry, if you’ve got beef with conformity and the notion of financial success as the measure of masculinity, or if you’re wondering what this fuss about the Beats is all about, here’s the go-to manual. And where else will you find a hero with a name like Sal Paradise?

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2. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Number two on the list, but taking the lead for controversy, is Nabokov and Humbert Humbert, who sets off on the lam with his underage companion. While we strongly suggest you don’t take a leaf out of Humbert’s book in any other respect, he does drive around the States for the best part of a year, and we’re kind of envious of that. Anyway, morally dubious as its anti-hero may be, Lolita’s prose is indisputably jaw-dropping. Definitely one for the road-trip bookshelf.

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3. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

An American classic, Huckleberry Finn tells the story of a carefree, ‘idle and vulgar’ young lad, the famous Huck, who fakes his death and hits the road – taking with him Jim, a runaway slave – in order to escape the adult world and gain their freedom. It’s funny, biting, and explores issues like race and identity in a much more sophisticated way than it’s sometimes given credit for. Given the old Southern setting, it’s not surprising that the boys travel by foot and by raft, rather then by motor-car, but hey, it still counts.

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4. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, JRR Tolkien

Another proto-road-trip by foot, The Hobbit straddles that slippery divide between children’s and adult’s fiction. It’s a fantasy, sure, with dragons and elves, but the sophisticated humour and language works just as well for adults. Hobbits, dragons, dwarves, trolls, elves, wizards, horrible danger and vast treasure – sounds like a pretty decent road-trip to us…

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5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson

Equally fantastical, but in a rather more sordid and illegal way, is the desert trip in Fear and Loathing. Subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, it’s the hallucinogenic and semi-autobiographical tale of one Duke Raoul and his crooked attorney, Dr Gonzo, as they head out to Vegas to report on a motorcycle race. Instead, they trash hotels, crash cars, have drug-induced visions and philosophize desperately about society. So this is more about the destination end of a road-trip, but we still reckon it counts because the driving scenes are so memorable. Besides, this marks a significant moment in Thompson’s now-famous ‘gonzo’ style of journalism. Don’t miss it!

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6. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño

A more off-beat choice, perhaps; this one’s for the poets out there. Set in Mexico in the 1970s, it features a set of earnestly ambitious writers, the so-called Visceral Realists, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano; their neophyte companion, Juan García Madero; and Lupe, a prostitute, all of them (at least in the third section) on the road and hunting for the mysterious Cesárea Tinajero, founder of Visceral Realism. All the while, they, in turn, are being chased by the police and by Alberto, a pretty angry pimp. Read this one for the prose and the ideas, rather than the plot (a straightforward romp it is NOT), but either way it’s a must-read for that Central American driving holiday we know you’ve been planning…

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7. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

You can’t go wrong with Steinbeck – one of the great chroniclers of the American psyche. Here, the Joads, a poor Oklahoma family, have been evicted from their home by the bank; along with many other families in similar situations, they decide to travel to California, lured by the promise of an earlier life – but, of course, it’s not that easy. Much of the book is take up with their journey west by truck – a trip full of misery, betrayal and hopelessness. Bleak eh? But probably one of the best books you’ll ever read.

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8. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Okay this one won’t get you reaching for your rucksack, but we couldn’t resist. After all, what would a road-trip reading list be without a little post-apocalyptic action? In McCarthy’s short, but horrific, novel, a father and son walk through a desolate America in search of succor, having to fight off other, desperate, survivors, and protest themselves against the weather, imminent starvation and their own memories. The film adaptation was decent, but McCarthy’s blunt prose is what makes this book such a knife to the heart. It’ll put you off long journeys by foot in the wilderness, mind.

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9. Sideways, Rex Pickett

Two friends head out on a stag trip to Californian wine country, or Santa Ynez, to be precise: it’s Jack’s last weekend of pre-marital freedom, and it’s Miles’ escape from his divorce. On the road for a week, with plenty of fine wines to sample, the men get down and dirty with a lot self-evaluation. This is a buddy book for the middle classes, and while it’s a gentler road-trip than some of the above, we can’t always be sashing up cars and getting chased by pimps. Plus, if you like this, check out the superb film adaptation starring Paul Giamatti.

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10. Angels, Denis Johnson

Last, but by no means least, is Johnson, one of our favourite living writers, and Angels is his first novel; it’s the story of runaway mother, Jamie Mays (and her two kids) and ex-con Bill Houston, who meet aboard a dingy Greyhound bus. The book follows them from city to city, and motel to motel, as their dysfunctional relationship accelerates towards madness and violence. If you’re planning your great adventure by bus, this might just change your mind…

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That’s it for now from us – but what top road-trip novels rev your engines?

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