On the road again: The Lauras author Sara Taylor on remaking US road novel
Long road trips were a feature of the writer’s childhood and a staple of US fiction, and oddly the only place to try exploring the feeling of not quite belonging in America
Sara Taylor: A journey is at the centre, a flight from the constraints of civilisation into the freedom of the highway and the horizon; secondary characters are encountered, bring with them challenges that prove to be temporary, since both are ultimately left behind; because of these encounters the narrative is somewhat episodic, hingeing on the movement from place to place; when the road ends, so ends the narrative
The year I was born, my grandparents moved to Nova Scotia. The year my younger sister was born they moved to Florida. I’ve been assured that none of these events are related.
We lived in Virginia, halfway between the two. Once a year or so my parents would load my brother and sister and I into the car and make the 16-hour drive to go and visit. The trip always began at bedtime, with us in our pyjamas, cocooned in blankets and pillows, Christian rock playing softly on the radio. We slept as they drove through the night, and when we woke as the sun came up we’d be passing through an unfamiliar city. Breakfast came out of the cooler wedged between the two front seats: hard-boiled eggs with clinging bits of shell, sliced deli roast beef so salty it made your throat hurt, plain lettuce, occasionally mealy apples or fibrous oranges with too much pith left on to taste nice. Stopping only occurred when absolutely necessary, lasted as briefly as possible.
As I got older the road trips multiplied: six hours for weddings and christenings and confirmations in New Jersey, 13 hours to interview at a university in Tennessee, five hours out before dawn on Monday but seven hours coming back after dinner on Thursday when my Dad worked on the Eastern Shore. My brother and I learned to drive on those journeys, more out of necessity than desire, because we could go further faster the more of us there were to split the task. We drank coffee and talked through the night, one person driving, one person keeping the driver awake, the rest asleep. On daytime trips the car was like our kitchen table with all of us talking over each other, getting in the words we didn’t have time to share when we weren’t on the move. Other people think of family and imagine them in a living room or dining room; mine in memory was most family-like, spent the most time together, in the car.
America has a landscape made for road tripping. The highways are straight and broad and, if you’re not picky about when you travel, often empty. The distances invite challenge, call for patience and stamina, and possibly an RV. You need a GPS, or a map; you always need luck because both the map and the GPS will be wrong at some point, will fail to match the landscape in front of you. There are official routes and planners, guides and even travel companies that specialise in arranging trips for overseas visitors, because it’s not just Americans who daydream about hitting the road. I know few people who haven’t either made part of a major journey or plan to one day.
The Lauras follows the road, from east to west coast and from the Mexican to Canadian borders and beyond. Ma drives, Alex naps and navigates, asks questions and struggles through adolescence in the passenger seat. As they cross the country Ma tells stories about her childhood in foster care and her youth on the run, slowly explains why the road has taken them where they’ve been, why they’ve committed arson and contemplated murder, how it’s not really kidnapping if the person is begging you to take them away when you leave.
Like the trips of my childhood, the mother knows where they’re going, or at least seems to know where they’re going; the child is left wondering in the dark, the way children so often are when parents forget that they’re sentient enough to be curious, smart enough to know that there are times when only stupid people ask questions. Even though Ma is the one with the stories it’s Alex who narrates the novel, which begins on the night that they leave Alex’s father with no explanations. Ma has already made this journey once before, is simply revisiting old territory, laying bad memories to rest. For Alex it’s all new, in the same way the journey into adulthood that begins on the night they leave home is new.
If the road novel isn’t a uniquely American undertaking, then it is territory heavily populated by American authors: On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Many others also fit the bill, share some general characteristics. A journey is at the centre, a flight from the constraints of civilisation into the freedom of the highway and the horizon; secondary characters are encountered, bring with them challenges that prove to be temporary, since both characters and challenges are ultimately left behind; because of these encounters the narrative is somewhat episodic, hingeing on the movement from place to place; when the road ends, so ends the narrative.
One characteristic this sort of novel seems to share is that, no matter how alienated the characters may be from the wider culture, they are still Americans, have a place of belonging to drop out from. In this The Lauras borrows more from autobiography: Alex’s mother is an immigrant, as is mine. Even though she has lived in the US for most of her life and passes easily as a native English speaker, there are common experiences that she has missed, metaphors which she misuses, traditions that she doesn’t quite understand, and a sense of not belonging that she has seemingly passed on to Alex along with her unrelenting desire to be on the move.
It’s only now that the writing is over that I realise that a uniquely American form was the only place to try exploring the feeling of not quite belonging in America, despite being the kind of person that, from an objective standpoint, really should. Even though it is a country formed almost entirely of people who have come from elsewhere, whose experiences don’t fit a set pattern, there are still so many ways a person’s life can deviate from acceptability, and Alex’s does in as many ways as possible. And it seems like a uniquely opportune moment for those whose experience hasn’t fit the dominant narrative to pipe up, if only to remind whoever’s around that there is more than one way of being human.
The Lauras is published this month by William Heinemann, £12.99
“Brutal, darly humorous and captivating”: read Lorraine Courtney’s Irish Times review