Nine Subversive Travel Novels

Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates fiction that uncovers deeper truths about travel and the world

01.13.10 | 11:11 AM ET

Travel writing is often assumed to be only non-fiction travelogue, but I see travel literature as anything in which place plays a central role—and that can include fiction, or anything in between fiction and non-fiction.

The roman à clef, subjective (gonzo) memoir and fictional travel novel allow the writer to explore socially and politically sensitive, if not subversive, themes from more angles than the straightforward travelogue.

Take, for example, Bruce Chatwin’s controversial classic, “In Patagonia.” The book lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, and that allowed Chatwin to create a grittier, more textured—and considerably more intimate—portrait of the land and its people. Novelist and memoirist Anthony Doerr said, “I flat-out loved ‘In Patagonia’ when I first read it and was never bothered to learn that some of it is made-up. Everything is artificial and subjective to a certain degree anyway, isn’t it?” 

ALSO SEE: Nine Subversive Non-Fiction Travel Books

Here are nine travel books that use fiction to uncover deeper and, often, uncomfortable truths.

‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad

Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1889 journey up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness may not be the most racially sensitive book by contemporary standards. However, the book was innovative at the time of its publication because it called into question the supposedly civilizing forces of European interests in Africa. In effect, it damned the Europeans’ self-proclaimed moral high ground. From the book’s powerful introduction on the deck of a ship on the Thames to travails in the Congo, the story is vivid and transporting, but still manages to be a socio-political critique of home. Not bad, considering that English was Conrad’s third language.

‘Journey to the End of the Night’ by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

This novel’s anti-hero (and Céline’s alter-ego) Ferdinand Bardamu has a concocted last name that translates roughly as “backpack-move.” Mainly autobiographical, it follows Céline’s travels through Europe, colonial Africa, post-World War I America, and his hometown of Paris, with a caustic, nihilistic depiction of people and culture. The author later went off the deep end as a vocal anti-Semite, but this sharply eloquent book tears back the façade of industrial America, romantic Paris, European colonialism and, perhaps, the notion that human beings are ever truly redeemable.

‘Away’ by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom’s recent novel, Away, tracks its immigrant heroine, Lillian Leyb, across a 1920s America replete with prostitutes, prisoners, exploitation and racism. Lillian’s travels are motivated not by any urge to see the world, but by love, and a desire to find the daughter she lost in a Russian pogrom. Lillian stows away in the bathrooms of passenger trains, walks across most of Alaska, trades sex for security and immerses herself in Seattle’s African-American underclass. “Away” does not shy away from harsh historical realities and complex interpersonal and internal tensions.

‘Factotum’ by Charles Bukowski

Set near the end of World War II, Factotum is a picaresque of deadbeat alcoholic and Bukowski alter-ego Henry Chinaski. Good ol’ Hank makes his way from booze-soaked nights in skid row Los Angeles around the country and back while slaving away at menial, mind-numbing jobs. All the while, Chinaski labors to become a published writer and befriends and fornicates with equally lost souls and tragic characters. “Factotum” depicts an underbelly of the listless World War II home-front America that flies in the face of the triumphal image painted in your average U.S. history class.

‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ by Hunter S. Thompson

Thompson’s most celebrated work and genre-defining masterpiece is at once a psychedelic road trip buddy comedy and a hedonistic 1970s reevaluation of the American Dream. It’s based on road trips made between Los Angeles and Las Vegas by Thompson and Chicano activist-lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. It’s a domestic travelogue that uses San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and a wide array of uniquely American characters in a twisted critique of the achievements (or lack of achievements) of 1960s counterculture.

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Seattle-based writer Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of the book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?, which was published in 2008. He is hard at work on various top secret and vaguely scandalous projects.

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19 Comments for Nine Subversive Travel Novels

John Rouse 01.13.10 | 1:33 PM ET

Great list.  You had me at “On the Road.”  Growing up I spent summers at the Folk Festival in Lowell, Mass where Kerouac was born.  Years later I reconnected when reading this book while on the road myself.

Emme 01.13.10 | 8:19 PM ET

How nice of him to throw in one token female writer.

Jim Benning 01.13.10 | 8:24 PM ET

Which novels would you have included, Emme? Would love to hear other ideas.

Jim Benning 01.13.10 | 8:26 PM ET

John, we’re huge Kerouac and “On the Road” fans at World Hum. Be sure to check out the other articles under our Jack Kerouac tag:

Sydney 01.13.10 | 9:07 PM ET

Coincidentally I finished ‘On the Road’ today, the first I’ve ever read by Kerouac. This list has given me several ideas for what to read next - thank you.

Vera Marie Badertscher 01.14.10 | 1:19 AM ET

Although it would not be filed under travel in the bookstore, I named The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz as my “don’t even go there” book at my book and travel blog. Dominican Republic in an unfavorable light.

Chris 01.14.10 | 12:42 PM ET

Can’t make a book list without controversy!

I’ve loved Heart of Darkness since High School. I like basically anything by Orwell and I’m getting interested in Kerouac,

Emme 01.14.10 | 6:03 PM ET

Hi Jim,

Off the top of my head:  Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ and, of course, Isek Dineson’s ‘Out of Africa’—

At least 50 percent of book buyers are women, and 50 percent of travelers are women. Yet you have no regular female columnists at worldhum! Rolf and Tom are amazing writers, but they do not represent me.

The best selling travel novel of the past years is arguably the very terrible ‘Eat, Love, Pray.’ But it struck a chord with mostly female audiences who relate to travel quests.

My two cents.

Jim Benning 01.14.10 | 6:13 PM ET


Thanks for your two cents. Two fine suggestions.

And for the record: we’d love to find a great woman columnist—or columnists!


Eva Holland 01.14.10 | 6:49 PM ET

‘The Poisonwood Bible’ was actually written by Barbara Kingsolver. Margaret Atwood’s certainly written plenty of stuff that you could make a “subversive” argument for, but none of it’s striking me as particularly travel-y off the top of my head. As for “Out of Africa” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” I believe they’re both considered to be non-fiction.

Emme, I think there’s a larger issue at work here beyond World Hum’s lists and columnists - travel writing is largely male-dominated. Personally, I’m more interested in seeing that change than in taking issue with lists that, whether I like it or not, probably reflect the current reality.

Jennifer 01.14.10 | 7:10 PM ET

Here comes another woman with a strong opinion, Jim, so fasten your seatbelt!

It’s true that most travel PLANNERS these days are women - moms who look for destination ideas online, etc. I wish I had the citation in front of me, because I’m too lazy to look it up. However, most travel writers are men. It is, as Eva implies, a shame.

The tragic thing is that I’m about to recommend my favorite on-the-road book, which is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance. Yes, written by a dude. One of its main themes is that there are two basic types of people in the world: Those who like to pick things apart and understand how they work, (be they motorcycles or anything else), and those who just want to cruise along and enjoy the ride. The same holds true in many ways for travelers, I think: There people who want to get to know the history, culture, and natural habitat of a new place, and those who like to take their vacations poolside, sipping delicious drinks that come with souvenir straws.

Anyway, list list of subversive novels.

Jennifer 01.14.10 | 7:11 PM ET

Meh, I meant, NICE list of subversive novels. My copy editor is in Jamaica.

Jim Benning 01.14.10 | 7:20 PM ET

Zen is a great travel memoir, Jennifer. I loved it (though I confess I skimmed through some of the particularly lengthy meditations on “quality”).

I’m with Eva: Women travel writers are far outnumbered by men travel writers. I’d love to see more great women travel writers submitting to World Hum.

Lindsey 01.19.10 | 3:39 PM ET

Women with strong opinions! No WAY! Jenifer- that made me laugh
I had so much fun reading all the comments- and of course canít help but add mine.
Of the books Iíve read, they bring back memories (for the record Jim, I listened to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, while on one of many, cross country-road trips, itís a thick book & a good number of CDís )
But you all just gave me a good kick in the butt to get writingÖ
Tusen Tack!
(a thousand thanks)

pelu 01.19.10 | 4:53 PM ET

it so happens that I bought a copy of ‘Fear and Loathing in Vegas’ (Limited edition) few days ago. After reading through this selection, I chose to carry the book with me on my road trip around Nigeria, which is on as I write. I already feel I have a treasure on my hands

James L. Moore 01.19.10 | 11:44 PM ET

Nice list.  A couple I need to check out. 

I would throw in “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

James L. Moore 01.19.10 | 11:46 PM ET

Nice list.

I need to check a couple of those because they escaped my attention.

I would include “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

Michael Shapiro 01.26.10 | 10:49 PM ET

You want to read a great woman travel writer who hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves: try the intrepid Dervla Murphy from Ireland.

And re Kerouac: I’m sure he motivated some people to hit the road but he never moved me with his his prose. I’ve always agreed with Truman Capote’s assessment of Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Finally, how could Isabel Allende’s “House of the Spirits” not have made this list?

Mary D'Ambrosio 01.29.10 | 11:59 PM ET

Can a novella qualify? Garcia Marquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother,” a kind of salacious/feminist road story of a teenager whose grandmother prostitutes her all over Colombia to repay a supposed debt. People have called it everything from an allegory of Colombian development to a parable of life in medieval Spain—but to me it came across mainly as a wicked fairy tale.

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