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Roads : Driving America's Great Highways by…

Roads : Driving America's Great Highways

by Larry McMurtry

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Larry McMurtry's ROADS (2000) was only mildly entertaining to me. I started reading his books forty years ago, and read his first seven novels, then a few years later, I read LONESOME DOVE, which was something of a struggle to get through. So I laid off his books for several years. Last year I read his memoir, BOOKS, which I enjoyed tremendously, although many hated it. In that book, McMurtry made the rather startling admission that he didn't much enjoy writing anymore; that his antiquarian book business was a lot more interesting to him. In ROADS that idea comes through implicitly again, and he also makes a few revealing comments about how his open heart surgery back in the 90s left him reeling, noting that he lost his 'personality' after that frightening operation. Not only could he not write for a while, he didn't even read for a year or two. These honest comments alone make ROADS worth the read, I think.

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. ( )
  TimBazzett | May 10, 2013 |
Well, I read it. I'm not sure why. While I love driving vacations and the Interstates fill a role in quickly getting from here to there, I find them to be generally painful, boring, confusing, tedious (supply your own negative adjective) to travel. There is little or no local color at the clover leafs (or, is it "clover leaves?"), just chain after chain. Mark me down for the local roads.

McMurtry might just as well have flown over the US in a 757 and made extraneous comments as they popped into his head. I confess, too, that it irritated me that he referred to "the 35," "the 80," over, and over, and over, and over, and over (you get the idea). In some ways, it was more introspective than a road trip travel tome and perhaps he meant it that way. It just seemed detached from what I expected.

Nonetheless, I vote for Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon ten times over. Drive and read about the back roads. ( )
  bookblotter | May 6, 2011 |
The bottom of the pile for Larry. ( )
  ffstorer | Feb 12, 2010 |
It’s an odd book in which McMurtry makes the case for Interstate driving. I call it odd because McMurtry’s method seems to be to think about or describe places as he drives by them. The book is full of sentences like “I also passed up a chance to revisit -----.” “I wanted to drive the American roads at the century’s end, to look at the country again, from border to border and beach to beach,” McMurtry writes, and so he does, often driving 700 miles a day across the country on Interstates 10, 40, 70, 80, or 90 or down its length on 5, 25, 35, or 75. Not interested in poking into strange places, he drives “the great roads” as he calls them, “whose aim is to move you, not educate you.” He shares my prejudices for warmth and open spaces, preferring the south to the north and the west to the east, refusing to drive on I-95. McMurtry is old enough to appreciate the difference the Interstate roads made in enabling us to get around this huge country quickly. Getting there is the point of the road, McMurtry suggests. Though they have adventures along the way and travel before Interstates, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty also have this attitude about roads. They are always looking for the “final” cities, the end of everything at the end of the road: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and finally Mexico City. Unlike McMurtry, they hardly even talk about what they pass by, so hurried are they to get to the end. ( )
  michaelm42071 | Sep 6, 2009 |
This isn't the kind of travelogue I'm used to reading. I've read a lot of William Least Heat-Moon and Bill Bryson - both of them concentrate on the interesting places and people that they meet on their journeys. I don't think McMurtry speaks more than six times in this book. He's an old Cowboy, that's for sure. He digs silence and I think he comments at some point that Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" would have been better if he'd left the damn dog at home.

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. ( )
  anterastilis | Feb 24, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684868857, Paperback)

You couldn't find a blunter or more accurate title for Larry McMurtry's third work of nonfiction. Roads is indeed an automotive odyssey, in which the author traverses America on one highway after another. As such, the book has a long and honorable pedigree, stretching back to Tocqueville by way of Kerouac, and many readers will compare it to William Least Heat-Moon's bucolic ramble, Blue Highways. That, however, would be a mistake. The last thing McMurtry has in mind is a leisurely tour of small-town America--he's interested in the interstates themselves, "the great roads, the major migration routes that carry Americans long distances quickly." No wonder the speedometer seldom dips below 65 mph throughout the entire narrative. McMurtry is a man on the move, and even his meditative moments fly by in the linguistic equivalent of fourth gear.

Actually, there may be another reason the author is reluctant to apply the brakes: his distaste for various towns, villages, counties, and entire states. Planning a trip to the Texas hill country? McMurtry notes that "the soil is too stoney to farm or ranch, the hills are just sort of forested speed bumps, and the people, mostly of stern Teutonic stock, are suspicious, tightfisted, unfriendly, and mean." Missouri is "a place to get through as rapidly as possible," Ohio and Georgia "really aren't pleasant," and woe to the traveler who lingers in the one-horse towns of the West, "where it's not even wise to roll down one's windows--if you avoid getting murdered you might still breathe in some deadly desert germ."

This crankiness does have an undeniable comic appeal. Yet Roads turns out to be a sentimental journey after all, in the course of which McMurtry hopes to resurrect some of the élan vital he lost in the wake of his 1991 heart surgery. Driving, like reading itself, just may prompt some remembrance of things past:

As I prepared to drive those same overfamiliar roads again it occurred to me that my effort was obliquely Proustian, a retracing of my past that is analogous to the many rereadings I've done in the last few years, always of books I read before the surgery. In these rereadings and redrivings I'm searching, not for lost time, but for lost feelings, for the elements of my old personality that are still unaccounted for. I'm not anguished about these absentees, just curious and somewhat wistful.
Indeed, anguish is largely absent from McMurtry's account, and he doesn't dwell often on this scenario of loss and recovery. Still, it comes through particularly strongly at the end, when he compares his own, transient experience of place to his father's. These final chapters cast a sadder and more substantial light on the preceding ones--and make this circuitous, sometimes tetchy book a trip worth taking. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:54 -0400)

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As he crisscrosses America--driving in search of the present, the past, and himself--western chronicler Larry McMurtry shares his fascination with this nation's great trails and the culture that has developed around them.

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