Book review: Highway, Donald O’Donovan

This was a free LibraryThing Early Review copy

***

Highway book coverThe Smashwords blurb for this book promised “Highway is the road trip you always imagined but never took; mile after mile is marked with candid observations, outlandish circumstances and insights that define the American experience.” Unfortunately, the book didn’t really live up to this promise.

The writing wasn’t bad: everything was well described, only occasionally veering into clichĂ©. The main issue for me was that all of the characters encountered by the protagonist on his road trips felt like exactly that: characters. I never got a sense that any of them were real people. Even the protagonist himself was so thinly drawn that despite the whole thing being narrated from his point of view, I never really felt I got to know him. There also isn’t really much of a plot, although I suppose that is typical of the “road novel” genre – I think it’s meant to be a series of vignettes rather than one overarching story.

Another thing that bugged me was that there was no sense of when this book was supposed to be set. I had assumed from the cultural references, attitudes of the characters, language used and places described that the book was supposed to be set in the 1970s. It wasn’t until a third of the way through the book, where a character’s boyfriend is described as a “computer programmer who emailed her spicy photos from Internet porn sites”, that I realised it was supposed to be set in the present day. I actually found that really jarring: it moved the book from being a semi-decent period piece to a fairly hackneyed, decades-old view of “the American experience”. Little things started to niggle at me after that point: why was the main character, a writer, talking about using a typewriter? And why is such a big deal made over the truck stop diners having telephones at the tables – wouldn’t they have mobile phones?

I could have got past that, but the nail in the coffin when it came to this book was the attitudes to women displayed throughout. I found it quite unpleasant to read in places. Apart from the main character’s aunt, mother and sister, who are family members and therefore desexualised, the only female characters in this book are exclusively discussed in terms of their shaggability. When I thought the book was set in the 1970s, and thus reflecting 1970s attitudes, that was almost excusable – but really, a modern-day novel in which the only female characters are there to be shagged and discarded? There were some real cringeworthy moments too, such as when the main character ventures into South America and finds an American who has set up a brothel in the middle of the forest. The brothel owner reads to me like a sad old man, a Hugh-Hefner type figure living out his adolescent fantasy by paying young women to dress up as cheerleaders, keep house for him and be available for him to shag. However, he is simply idolised by the protagonist and others around him. He is described by another character thus: “[he] treats his Indians well. He is kind but stern, like a good father. They look up to him as their leader, almost as a god… his privileges among them include the jus primus noctis“.

Yeah, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Nice mixture of racism, sexism and all-round ick-factor there. Honestly, if the rest of this book had been a masterpiece, that passage alone would have earned it a low rating from me. As it is, I’m giving it 1/5, for the fairly decent descriptive writing. I doubt I’ll read anything else by this author.

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1 Comment

  1. I haven’t read Highway, but I am, overall, a big fan of O’Donovan. He’s such a sharp, detailed writer who delivers hilarious lines and phrases with perfect timing. His humor is inserted into some of the worst situations, and reminds us that for every beautiful, touching moment, there is squalor and despair right around the corner.

    Anyway, I appreciate your review!

    Reply

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