American Road Myth, part 2

I’ve touched on this already – that solitude is a big part of the American Road Myth, so forgive me if this repeats some of what has been said before by me and by you. In part one, I described the road as a path to personal wholeness, or the myth of wholeness, at least. Implicitly, those on the road will never know that wholeness. The road is a place for the unwhole. They just keep moving. They are the drifters.

The road myth is all about the drifters; they are the frame that the myth is hung upon. People with no place. They go everywhere and belong nowhere. The heroes of American legend are drifters. The road has shaped our heroes and our old heroes did much to build the road myth itself.

It’s the classic story – a stranger comes to a troubled town. He knows no one, owes nothing to anyone, and has nothing to lose. He understands evil, though. He knows how it works and he knows what to do about it. His separateness from the rest of the people gives him a power they don’t have, a mythical energy that comes from strength of character and moral certainty. At least, that’s what the townsfolk see. We know that any American hero has demons as well, ghosts that drive him mad even as they give him strength. It is the evil he fights within himself that gives him power over the evil he meets. The road looks like the path to escape the demons, bit it isn’t. The road is where the demons live.

At the end of every story, the hero is presented with a choice – stay in town, put the demons to rest, settle down with the prettiest girl, or return to the road. Return to a life of haunted solitude. The choice is always the same. (Although there is the occasional story where they have to shoot the girl to get him back on the road). Big trouble in Little China did it best: “Aren’t you even going to kiss her?” “Nah.”

Many countries have adopted our loner-hero character, and the Australians may have improved upon it, but it is still a peculiarly American myth. A hero in a story is only allowed to have a social life if an equally prominent character demonstrably does not. Bad guys are surrounded by people, Good guys go home to empty apartments with chinese takeout cartons overflowing the trash can. They have no furniture but a lazy-boy and a small TV on a milk crate with a coathanger for an antenna. They like it that way. Jackie Chan has a family to nag him, Nick Nolte probably never even had a mother.

I have certainly embraced the idea of the hero as a loner in my writing. The main character in The Monster Within is about the most solitary person I’ve even seen written down at the start of the story. The Fish, while still in its infancy, is a story directly about the search for solitude. By disconnecting from the world, the narrator is able to see the nature of ordinary things through many different layers, and hear the stories going on around us all the time.

Which brings me back to the drifter. When he finds a new place, he sees the things that everyone who lives there has learned not to see. He sees the truth. His power is to show the truth to others. He may be the best with a gun, or perhaps Kung Fu, but his real weapon is truth. It is why the town appreciates him so much, and why they don’t try too hard to make him stay. Too much truth, all the time, would be scary. It’s better for everyone if he just… vanishes. As if he never was.

He shows them the truth and makes them free, but he never shares the truth about himself. That is for the drifter and his demons alone.

5 thoughts on “American Road Myth, part 2

  1. Jerry, I think you are confusing the “western”, especially John Wayne westerns with the “road myth”. Although the two share a lot in common, I have never found the road story to include the moral certainty or “man of action” which you describe. Although the classic western hero is a drifter, he has much more impact on the people around him than the Keourac like characters you find in the later 20th century road stories. These characters drift in and out of peoples lives without leaving a permanent trace on the outsiders, they live within and for themselves. The drifters in the classic western scenario, ie. “Stagecoah”, have an important effect upon the communties they pass through.

    Just food for thought, and westerns provide plenty of it.

  2. Yeah, that’s an excellent point. I probably used drifter in some places where I should have used hero, but it’s the hero archetype that I was talking about here, which has its roots in westerns but is certainly not confined to them.

    Certainly the latter-day drifters in American literature aren’t so heroic, yet they still capture the spirit of the road. Still today, however, there is an impermanence to the hero of ust about every genre.

    Wht I was looking at here was he effect of the road myth on our heroes. I’m thinking I need to make it clearer that hero is a subset of drifter, rather than a synonym for drifter.

  3. While I was writing this episode, There was a Steven Segal movie playing (without sound) on the TV I was facing in the bar. I have no idea which one it was, and right at the end I saw something which made me realize just why I’m not a fan of those movies.

    He has the girl. AND A PUPPY. People with inner demons don’t get puppies after their work is done.

    Lacking any convincing inner demons, the hero is left to being powered by some sort of grand riteousness that gives them the strength to beat the crap out of people. I find that tiresome.

    The movie ends with him picking a fight with a guy who had an offensive opinion. The last thing you see is the puppy licking the man’s face while he rolls on the ground holding his crotch. Riteousness prevails.

  4. For really good archetypes, I have two favorites, both Clint Eastwood movies.

    *High Plains Drifter* is about a stranger who wanders into a town where the townsfolk are intimidated by terrorists hired by a nearby landowner. *Pale Horse, Pale Rider* is similar, but with more religious undertones — Eastwood’s character is simply known as “Preacher.”

    OK, maybe these films don’t qualify as great cinema. But that whole Western ethic, as redefined by Eastwood, prevails.

  5. Ah.. one more.. as a child I read -sometimes for lack of other materials a great deal of my grandfather’s Louis L’Amour. One in particular comes to mind. I don’t recall the title, but the main character was the definitive drifter. When asked his name by the lonely widow on her own ranch somewhere in the mountains of CO or WY he responds with “Passin Through. You can call me Passin.”

    Which of course they do, right up to the point he wanders on after setting to rights the state of her fences, gates, and the threat from the evil landowner who is threatening to cut off her water supply and steal her land and herd.

    Ah, the days when heroes and good guys were so easy to spot…

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