August 2008

Brandee Strachan


Road Trip Stories

The middle of summer, tradition holds, is a good time for a road trip, or at least books about them. Neither of the books in this month's column are exactly On the Road, but they definitely follow the road trip tradition: marathon drives, arguments, bonding, lessons learned, and music all along the way.

It’s pretty much inevitable that a book about Highway 61 will be as much about music as it is about travel, and William McKeen’s Highway 61 is no exception to the rule. Aside from detailing the trip he took down Highway 61 -- from Thunder Bay to the French Quarter -- with his college-student son, Graham, it’s also a story about the history of rock n’ roll music, the musicians and the places that shaped them, the songs and the people who love them, and who, in some cases, have been memorialized within them. In Minnesota, they visit Bob Dylan’s birthplace; in Louisiana, they get to the blues -- Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, crossroads and unmarked graves.

According to the cover text, Highway 61 is officially a “father-son journey,” which sounds ominous, but it really isn't as sentimental as it sounds. McKeen has a tendency to reminisce often; every musician, every song, has a personal connection for him. This is more of a minor annoyance than a genuine irritant, though. It's keeping in line with the sentimental father-son bonding idea, which, if that's what you're looking for in a road trip story, could make it perfect. Even if it's not, McKeen is sharp, knowledgeable, and witty. It’s worth reading through the nostalgia for the rest of the book -- just take those vignettes in small doses, lest they start to grate.

"There's a difference between the blues -- born from real, heartbreaking experience -- and whining. There seems to be a lot of that. A credit card maxed out, an unreasonable boss, an annoying colleague -- that's whining. I listen to Robert Johnson and think about the wife and child lost together. Was he nineteen then? He took an oath against God. That's the blues."

The story is most poignant when our guides near the end of 61, officially embarking upon the Dead Bluesmen Tour as they name-check the places in Johnson’s songs. While McKeen shares his own past throughout the book, he’s not trying to make a legend of himself, and so when he says he’ll never again hear Johnson’s music without thinking of the actual places, the geography behind the words, it brings to the story a sort of dignity. It’s sentimental but it’s also deeply respectful: history overwriting his own connections. McKeen has made this music his life and his reverence. His passion is usually enough to keep the story from dragging. Highway 61 is Americana but McKeen has a sense of perspective, of history and modernity that keeps it from becoming entirely kitsch: Scott Joplin, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Stax Studios, the mythical intersection of 61 with Highway 49, and the conversations he and Graham have along the way.

Highway 61 is about more than just the physical act of traveling, the odometer climbing and the number of road-signs passed, and it’s more than just a funny, occasionally sweet book about a father and son bonding: it’s about the author's love for what’s come before, for the music he's shared with his son, and for those who created it. Highway 61 is a travel book in three ways, then. If it sometimes veers into cloying sentimentality, maybe that’s just part of the charm, part of the road trip experience: beautiful parts and funny bits and the occasional rough patch and awkward moment.

When you get tired of McKeen's reminiscing, or if rock n’ roll nostalgia is not your thing, Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box is of a darker tone; it's obsessed with places and the ghosts thereof, but while Highway 61's ghosts are limited to the poetic variety, Heart-Shaped Box is a ghost story in the more traditional sense. Aging rock star Judas Coyne, who has built his career on an act cloaked in the macabre, buys a haunted suit in an online auction. It's meant to be amusing, a publicity stunt at most, but the ghost is real and it wants Jude dead. Jude isn't the nicest of guys, by any means ("You want sympathy, fuck James Taylor," he tells his girlfriend), but he's sympathetic, and when the horror story begins, you can't help but feel for him. Because it's not bad luck that he ended up with the ghost -- someone has a very specific vendetta against him.

It was a photograph, one he knew well... Danny had snapped it one afternoon in late August, the sunlight reddish and warm on the front porch, the day swarming with dragonflies and glittering motes of dust. Jude perched on the steps in a worn denim jacket, his Dobro over one knee. Anna sat beside him, watching him play, her hands squeezed between her thighs. The dogs were sprawled in the dirt at their feet, staring quizzically up at the camera. It had been a good afternoon, maybe one of the last good afternoons.

Jude identifies his former girlfriends ("past lays") by the state from which they hail, even as he recognizes in them the same tendency he has in himself: he creates music to distance himself from who he was, and they flock to him seeking the same distance, the same sense of rebirth. When Anna's -- Florida's -- stepfather begins to haunt him, ostensibly to avenge Anna's death, it becomes impossible to ignore the past. In order to save his own life, or at least that of his current girlfriend (Marybeth, aka Georgia), as with all coming-of-age stories and a good deal of road trip stories, Jude has to come to terms with what he's spent most of his life trying to erase. Thus, he and Georgia head from New York to Louisiana in his rebuilt Mustang, attempting to outrun a very literal ghost while putting those not-so-literal specters to rest.

Neither of these books are especially long or difficult reads, but they're worth getting lost in, good ways to road trip, complete with music (and the occasional ghost or two) -- and unlike taking a road trip yourself, if you get tired of view or the company, all you have to do is put the book down. Maybe the hardest part is deciding who you want to share the ride with -- Bill and Graham, bonding over music, or Jude and Marybeth, for whom music is also a way of life, albeit in a very different way. Both stories are haunting (pun only slightly intended), both are riveting, and both have their moments of brilliance, parts that will send shivers down your spine -- a relief on sweltering August days or during the long dark nights that follow.