Have you ever dreamed of travelling cross country? Most likely, you have. Usually at the end of our educational pursuits and before we enter the work force full-time, we all dream about seeing all of America. Unfortunately, not many of us get that opportunity for one reason or another. Fortunately, I had that opportunity to travel for six weeks one summer early in my teaching career.
A good friend and I took three weeks to drive from New York to California, visiting both old friends and popular landmarks such as Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Cave of the Winds near Colorado Springs. Next, we spent two weeks exploring the Golden State; we visited Laguna Beach, we went to Universal Studios in Hollywood, and we even toured a winery up north near San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, we used our last available week to hustle home before we ran out of money and, more likely, before we drove each other crazy. Rather than tell that particular story today, however, I’d like to share with you the story of another cross-country journey, a fictional journey called The Spider Room by Tim Kelly.
This engaging novel is a bit different from my adventure because instead of driving to the left coast, protagonist and narrator, Matt Mahoney, hitchhiked from the East Coast to the West, and he didn’t confine himself to the United States. Rather, he journeyed westward in Canada, from Kingston, Ontario to Vancouver, British Columbia, and returned to his home in Upstate New York by way of Routes 80 and 90. This story takes place during the early 1970s when plenty of young Americans were visiting Canada, not only to take advantage of the affordable hostels that were readily available but also to avoid the U.S. military draft that was calling young males to fight a controversial battle thousands of miles away in Vietnam. Though Mahoney himself was not trying to avoid the draft, he was dealing with a couple personal battles that were haunting him: the death of his father and the end of his first serious romantic relationship.
As Matt tells the story, his relationship with his father was a good one early on. His dad would sing to Matt and play with him, and Matt’s dad appeared to enjoy their time together. Gradually, though, Matt’s father, a literature professor, spent more time with his schoolwork and with a new companion: alcohol. Thus, as their relationship deteriorates, Matt blames himself and wonders what he could have done differently to make things better, a situation that is only exacerbated when Matt’s father dies at a relatively young age.
Similarly, Matt can’t let go of his high-school sweetheart, Helen, even though it was he who ended that relationship. Previously, they spent all of their time together, sharing both light-hearted moments and deep conversations, as they walked endlessly through their hometown. Only after Helen is gone does Matt truly realize his error, and much of his inner monologue while waiting for rides is focused on these two individuals who are no longer with him.
Thus, if you’ve ever wanted to get out and see the world, I would suggest this vicarious adventure for three reasons. First, this book is beautifully written. Kelly’s rambling narration is at times reminiscent of both James Joyce’s stream of consciousness and J.D. Salinger’s use of colloquial language. In addition, each ride is a unique adventure with one or more new characters, many of whom are, like Matt, Baby Boomers traveling to find themselves by crisscrossing North America. Finally, the journey, as hinted above, is both external and internal. Yes, Matt wants to see the countryside and meet its people, but he’s also trying to discover what to do with his life once he returns home. By the time you finish thumbing your way through this journey with him, you’ll be glad you went along for the ride.