Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. 2009. 202 pages.

The curse of our generation is that everything’s been tried before. Drink, drugs, God, sex, meditation, masturbation, crystals, mushrooms, peyote, shamanism, communism, consumerism, tai chi, feng shui, kung fu, flower power and TV shopping. It’s obvious to anyone that out little road trip here is nothing more than a tired repetition of an age-old formula. But have you got any better ideas, Jack? Have you thought of something that nobody else in the world before you has thought of?

As regular readers might have noticed, I’m in a “classics revisited” mood these days. After the excellent 1280 âmes, the awful Madman Bovary and before the fantastic Wide Sargasso Sea, I read Andrew Blackman’s debut novel, On the Holloway Road. It’s an assumed adaptation of the mythic On the Road by Jack Kerouac in modern Britain. I was curious to discover what he had done with such a pitch, a slippery slope, in my opinion. As I had re-read On the Road last year and reviewed here, it was recent enough for me to see the links between the books.

Jack lives in London with his mother after his father died. He’s in his twenties or maybe early thirties and has decided to become a writer. While he struggles with his first novel, he meets Neil Black during one of his errands on the Holloway Road. They embark in his Figaro for a road trip to the extreme North of Great Britain. They have with them the audio book of On the Road, read by Matt Dillon. It’s a first person narrative, we only have Jack’s version of the events, he might be an unreliable narrator.

I’ve noticed that road trips in Britain consist in driving in the wild North. (cf The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) Jack muses: “It’s a landscape of possibilities, where for a while you feel as if you can breathe air that hasn’t recently passed through someone else’s lungs”. Does going beyond the Wall of Hadrian still symbolize something? Incidentally, I wondered what it would be in France and I couldn’t figure it out. Such road trips would be more on foot, on the way to Santiago de Compostella or in the Massif Central, with a donkey on Stevenson’s footsteps. But back to the book.

In French we say “coup de foudre” (literally “flash of lightening”) for “love at first sight”. I prefer the French expression because it can be used for many situations, including friendship and doesn’t have necessarily a romantic meaning. Jack has a “coup de foudre” for the buoyant Neil. They are like fire and ice. Neil is weird, unpredictable, prone to verbal logorrhea and incoherent theories about life and freedom. Jack is quieter, respectful of rules and principles, desperately reasonable. Jack is fascinated by Neil, their relationship is based on rather blind adoration and even if Jack is aware that it is toxic for him, he can’t walk away from Neal. He’s like a drug to him.

I got a sensation that was strange to me at the time but would soon become familiar: that Neil was doing enough living for the two of us, and there was nothing left for me to do but watch.

I wasn’t fond of Neil (I wasn’t fond of Dean either btw) but I sure felt sorry for Jack. Being myself rather shy and quiet, I understand perfectly why he’s so attracted by the extroverted Neil. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a hint of homosexuality between the two.

All along their trip, we realize that their dream of American wilderness and of carefree behaviors such as Sal and Dean’s cannot happen in today’s Britain. The environment makes it hard to break the rules. Attempts at driving wild are cut short by traffic cameras and automatic flashes. Soon Jack is afraid to lose all his points on his driving license. When Neil throws away some trash on the highway, they are quickly arrested by the police and get a fine: someone had reported it. When they want to be hired on a drill platform, they learn you need qualifications and a special security training and that two good arms and a will to work aren’t enough.

For those who haven’t read On the Road or don’t remember it, the characters of the book are Sal and Dean, respectively Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy in real life. When I thought about the two sets of characters, I saw butterflies. Sal and Dean are day butterflies, the colorful ones who fly playfully from one flower to another under a sunny sky. They have a vivid and joyful way to fly, as if they were enjoying their short time on Earth and trying to make the best out of it. They’re jazz, light, fun, sad, full of life. On the contrary, I saw Jack and Neil as night butterflies. They’re grey, hollow, and live in a dark world and their pool of light is made of electric bulbs. When they fly, it’s only to bump into that artificial light they take for the sun and burn their fragile wings. Their freedom is sad and limited. It’s limited by their time and by their country, the cops, the camera, the rules and the absence of vast wilderness. They’re electronic music, mechanic, repetitive and inhuman. Their goal in itself draws the difference between them. While Sal and Dean drive to the sunny California, Jack and Neil drive to the windy and cold island of Barra.

On the Holloway Road left me singing Send A Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash. It’s a sad song about a man whose friend just got liberated from prison and who knows he’s himself  in jail for life. It stayed with me as a bridge between today’s Britain and 1950s America. After all, isn’t it what this book is all about?


  1. September 15, 2011 at 2:26 am

    Do you think that the non-liberation (rules, laws, CCTV cameras) were an underlying theme?


    • September 15, 2011 at 7:13 am

      I think the main theme was two young men looking for a meaning to their life and trying to find it in a “traditional” way, ie through a road trip. They want to break free and can’t as their freedom encounters serious impediments in various rules and laws. So yes, it’s an underlying theme.
      I think there are more cameras in Britain than here. We have some too but mayors sometimes hesitate to put some as the population isn’t always favorable to it. (I’m against it. It bothers me to know that someone can observe me behing their screen when I’m walking on the street. Where’s my privacy? )


      • September 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm

        I read somewhere that there are more cameras (surveillance) in Britain than anywhere else on the prison planet.

        The issue of privacy comes up in Philip Hensher’s new novel, King of the Badgers.


        • September 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm

          Everytime they try to sell us surveillance cameras, they give us Britain as an example.
          Have you read that book? I’m interested in that issue.


  2. September 15, 2011 at 7:43 am

    I’m planning on reading On the Holloway Road as well. For some reasons I didn’t pay attention to the fact that it is so closely linked to On the Road. There are many ways to revisit a classic and I’m curious to see how he did it. I’ve been thinking about space a lot lately, I even think that to a certain extent England’s problems stem in part from the limited space. With this in mind I’m even more interested to read the book as it seems to capture this claustrophobic feeling.
    I think one can easily say England isn’t ideal road trip country. It’s too small, too crowded, if you want to find yourself somewhere without too many people you have to drive up North but up North has not excatly the same effect on the mood as somewhere wide and warm.
    You can do nice trips in France but in Europe the best country for this is Spain.
    On the other hand, if you want to drive fast, you have to go to Germany. In the US speed is much more limited but they have this incredible space.


    • September 15, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Looking forward to your review.

      I agree with you about space and I had the same feeling. England is more crowded than France (Except Paris and its suburbs, but as long as they’ll concentrate the jobs there, it isn’t going to change)
      I don’t think you can do road trips in Europe, unless you drive North (like here) or do several countries (like in Petits Suicides entre amis, by Paasilina) But loneliness is hard to find.
      That’s why I thought about walking instead of driving. Then you can be alone for hours, medidate about human condition and all that. By the way, when you hear about people who wanted a break, either they go abroad, or hike to Santiago de Compostella or spend some time in a convent.
      Here, there’s no way you can drive for hours on a straight road surrounded by Joshua trees. You need to go to big countries for that experience. US, West Canada (well not for Joshua trees, except maybe in the Okanagan valley)


  3. leroyhunter
    September 15, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    I agree, the words “road trip” and “Britain” don’t go together.

    Speaking of Matt Dillon, if you get a chance then his movie Drugstore Cowboy is worth a look – it’s from the 90s, and is a kind of road trip, but he’s great in it. Gus Van Sant directed.

    As a flipside of On the Road itself, I recently read Hell’s Angels by Hunter S Thompson. He’s a divisive figure and it’s a controversial book, but in places it’s also brilliant and hilarious. The Angels are a genuinely dark, nihilistic counterpart to the beatnik worldview of Kerouac et al. At the end the 2 worlds overlap when the Angels get involved with Ken Kesey and his acid scene, but the bikers get bored and go back to drinking and brawling eventually.


    • September 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      And those battles continue…Angels vs the Mongols at the 2002 Harrahs casino in Las Vegas. Known as the River Run Riot. I knew one of those killed.


      • leroyhunter
        September 15, 2011 at 10:43 pm

        Shocking stuff Guy. When things kick off these guys don’t take prisoners.


      • September 15, 2011 at 11:29 pm

        I heard somewhere that the only country where they don’t fight is France. They split the territory and respect their “gentlemen’s agreement”


    • September 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      “Road trip” and “Britain” can go together …on foot, like for France. But then, you can’t say it’s a revival of the American dream.

      Thanks for the two recommendations.


  4. September 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm


    There’s surveillance camera footage at the right of the screen.


    • September 15, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      I can’t watch the videos right now, the internet connection is bad where I am. I will have a look this week end.


  5. September 15, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Hi Emma,
    Thanks very much for the insightful review! I truly loved your butterfly description. Very beautiful and also very apt. The limitations on their freedom were an important point for me, and as Guy picked up on in the comments, surveillance and rules are a theme of the book. In fact, that was dominant in the original idea – to contrast the freedom and possibility of 1950s America with the limitations of contemporary Britain. In the end it did become more about the characters themselves and their attempts to live a more full, authentic life, but that original idea still came through I think. I’m also interested in the fact that in Britain we dream so many American dreams, even though many of them are not applicable to us, hence the slightly incongruous idea of taking a road trip in a small, crowded country!


    • September 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for your message, I knew you’d probably read the review and was a little anxious about what you’d think about it.

      I agree with you on the limitations. In a way, there’s also less possibilities: if you don’t have the right diploma or the right connections, some jobs are totally closed. When you hear old journalists talk about their career, what they did seems impossible today.

      That’s the power of America: that country manages to enter into our brains the American dreams. I could perfectly understand what Jack and Neil were trying to do and what kind of images they had in mind


  6. September 16, 2011 at 3:52 am

    You can bet your socks that I’ll be reading Hensher’s King of the Badgers.


  7. September 20, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    I like the sound of this. I have to admit that the premise didn’t grab me initially. Rather short-sighted of me, but I couldn’t see how the American thing could translate into English. Which, as you point out, is kind of the point. Fantastic review, Emma.

    I think I would want to read On the Road first. It sounds as if that prior familiarity adds a great deal.


    • September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am

      I think it’s better to know On the Road to really appreciate On the Holloway Road. Some events of Neil and Jack’s travel map with the original journey by Sal & Dean.


  8. October 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I missed this review before. I’m now quite tempted to read the London, the Kerouac (which I’ve read before, and didn’t love as I recall) and this. That examination of how the dream crosses from the US to here, where it finds soil to grow in but not enough to let it flourish, that’s really quite interesting.


    • October 19, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      I hope you’ll read the “trilogy” I’d love to read your thoughts.


  9. October 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Also I forgot to say, I love the title.


    • October 19, 2011 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks. I love that song by Dylan.


  1. September 15, 2011 at 11:48 pm
  2. October 15, 2011 at 6:59 pm
  3. April 7, 2012 at 10:17 pm
  4. April 10, 2013 at 11:25 pm
  5. August 18, 2019 at 4:44 pm
  6. February 22, 2020 at 6:32 pm

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