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Roads: Driving America’s

When Larry McMurtry drives, he does so with little purpose. Those little runs to the grocery or to a friend’s or to the bookstore that the author runs in Archer City, Texas, don’t count as

drives. Those are errands, pleasures, work; they wouldn’t exist without purpose. When McMurtry really drives, he’s creating a void that he has no conscious intention of filling with substance. The drives he chronicles in Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways are ambitious in scope, yet somehow missionless. “My destination is also my route,” he writes after logging 770 miles, from Duluth, Minn., to Wichita, Kan., in one blur of a day. “I’m not attempting to take the national pulse, or even my own pulse,” he continues. He’s attempting, rather, just to drive, and not on quaint country roads but on what he calls “the great roads,” the interstates, “whose aim is to move you, not educate you.”

But, McMurtry being McMurtry—who’s written more than two dozen books and more than 30 screenplays—creating pockets of time that he hopes will be blissfully free of substance does not preclude him from chronicling the resulting experiences between hard covers. At times, the apparent dissonance in this business—of finding substance in aimlessness—is all too palpable. Roads is sprinkled with sections that read like what rushed newspaper columnists file on those days when they have to leave work early to drive the carpool. The Midwestern plains that McMurtry hurtles through with a thinly veiled sense of doom are indeed empty, but many of the stray thoughts that the terrain incites in him—about family farms, roadside video rentals, zombie truckers—are considerably less filling than the terrain itself.

Yet driving in long, essentially straight lines for no other reason than to satisfy the urge to do so is a very ponderous exercise; that’s the beauty of it, and with Roads, McMurtry amply demonstrates that his obsession with the book’s titular subject is genuine, perhaps even necessary. Each voyage is essentially treated as a chapter and reads like its own separate pilgrimage, albeit one with no fixed stopping point, and they all begin with McMurtry traveling, by airplane, to someplace at the end of the line, either a coastal city or a town near a border. His aim, as much as he has one, is to reacquaint himself with the highways that he believes have supplanted, in terms of practical importance and utility, America’s great rivers:

My method is modeled on rereading; I want to reread some of these roads as I might a book. I recently reread War and Peace, skipping all of the Freemasonry and most of the philosophy of history. In the same spirit I intend to skip large chunks of the 10, the 40, and so on.

McMurtry, a professional book collector and seller, is as prolific a reader as he is a writer, and Roads doubles as a compendium of the author’s thoughts on writers who reside in, were born in, or wrote about the places he observes through his rental cars’ windows. Drives through Key West and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example, prompt rather tortured reappraisals of Ernest Hemingway’s life and work. McMurtry’s a true book connoisseur, so much of his fannish enthusiasm, tangential as some of it is, can be pretty educational; I, for one, never realized that the Norwegian writer O.E. Rolvaagö wrote a novel depicting Minneapolis as “a place of great gaiety and charm”—a view McMurtry smartly juxtaposes with the Coen Bros.’ portrait of the same place in the movie Fargo. “How good Minneapolis looks may depend on how far out on the prairies you’re coming to it from,” he concludes.

The Lonesome Dove author is a reasonably famous guy, and even though his work might lead you to predict otherwise, he doesn’t seem terribly folksy. For one thing, he’s got a terrible name-dropping problem. (Did I mention that he knows Terry Southern, has eaten dinner with John Mellencamp, and counts Calvin Trillin among his friends?) Second, McMurtry lived in D.C. for 20 years. Upon returning to his old home, the starting point of one of his treks, which takes him, via the 66, 81, 40, and 30, to Dallas, he ruminates on how D.C.’s a different place from the one he left almost 10 years ago. The biggest change? The “great social stalwarts”—Evangeline Bruce (whoever that is), Pamela Harriman, Clark Clifford—are all dead. Can a minor celebrity who’s still bitching about the last profile of him in the Washington Post be trusted to adequately appreciate the beauty and isolation of rural America?

Actually, yes, he can. McMurtry’s regard for Plains sunsets is enough to excuse him his big-city pretensions. And his explanation of how the light changes through the stretch of the day in the Santa Catalina Mountains, “falling from the air” at daybreak, growing “heavier” in the heat until it “blurs,” with “clarity” finally returning at night, is plain-spoken and vivid.

Such renderings stir the urge to get away, as all great travel writing should, and the endeavor as a whole has a similar effect—especially if you covet the freedom from responsibility that allowed McMurtry to take it on. The lifestyle that produced Roads is a far cry from the one that produced, say, On the Road. This isn’t a criticism of McMurtry, and it’s not even an entirely fair comparison; McMurtry isn’t out to meet anyone interesting or even experience much. He just wants to drive and drive and drive, and if you’re the type who can see the appeal in doing just that, it’s hard not to be envious of him as he exits one highway to get onto another, just because he can.

McMurtry occasionally alludes to some existential trauma that, as Roads winds down, serves as the book’s psychic framework. He’s not searching but fleeing—from what, he leaves vague. He’s had heart surgery, he never mentions a lover, and screenplay work doesn’t come as effortlessly as it used to. He’s got things to work out, which he does by driving lines over the map of a country. Then, predictably but not inappropriately, he eventually circles back home to Texas, and, more specifically, to his father, who didn’t get out much. He observes, “I have looked at many places quickly—my father looked at one place deeply.” Roads ends soon thereafter, along with the author’s compulsion to leave home. CP