The delayed, coincidental arrival in the middle 1950s of two extremely dissimilar novels–Kerouac’s hurried On the Road and Nabokov’s fastidious Lolita–helped spur a renewal of the American picaresque. The idea of hitting the road had been an act of desperation in the 1930s and the source of comedies set in exotic locales in the 1940s. But in the next decade, it reawakened romantic aspirations, a mixture of roguish bravado and a righteous search for truth. What more poetic year to embark than 1960, as Ike’s America morphed into JFK’s?
It happens that two writers mapped out full-season itineraries that year. Unknown to each other, they filled their tanks and set out from New York on trips that, for entirely different reasons, entailed redolent stays in Monterey, Calif., and climactic ones in New Orleans. One writer was eminent: John Steinbeck, who had documented wretched journeys of the Depression, designed a trailer-truck and left in the fall with his dog, whose name adorned the best-seller that followed, Travels With Charlie. Meanwhile, the other road trip was largely unknown until a few months ago.