An American road trip in books, from Mark Twain to Bret Easton Ellis, stopping off with John Steinbeck, Alice Walker and Cormac McCarthy along the way. 

Explore the route by clicking on the map below. 

Before kicking off our bookish road trip round the USA, we start with a literary ramble through NYC. Then we hit the road, heading west for California before looping through the south and winding up back east again with one of the most influential books in early American literature. 

The ultimate inspiration for this trip is, of course, Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road, a jazz-inspired and booze-fuelled hymn to freedom.


Wall St, New York

American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis

This 1991 novel is narrated by slick and handsome serial killer Patrick Bateman –Wall Street banker by day, sadist and murderer by night. Viciously satirical and weirdly comic, with a nihilistic take on the American Dream that doesn’t let up.

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The Bronx, New York

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe

The Bronx is the opening setting for Wolfe’s brilliant satire on race, money and politics in 1980s New York. Imperious bond trader Sherman McCoy and his mistress hit a young black man with their car and flee the scene, kicking off a drama of Dickensian scope and style.

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Upper Manhattan, New York

Don De Lillo

Cold World classic Underworld spins off from the Dodgers/Giants 1951 National League final, where the thwacking of a baseball is cosmically mirrored by the firing of the first atomic device in the Soviet Union. The 1997 novel loosely follows the fate of the baseball, leading back in time from the 90s to the 50s.

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Harlem, New York

Go Tell It on the Mountain 
James Baldwin

A semi-autobiographical novel published in 1953, set in Harlem and soaked in the Biblical language of the Pentecostal religion which Baldwin grew up with and ultimately rejected. His later story, Sonny’s Blues, culminates brilliantly in a Greenwich Village club with a poetic invocation of jazz music.

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Long Island

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fragile, flawed Gatsby is a mysterious millionaire, whose extravagant parties are intended to entice Daisy Buchanan, a married socialite with whom he is obsessed. Languorous, decadent Long Island and seamy New York City form the backdrop to the 1925 novel, with the tragic conclusion played out in the desolate valley in between, piled with industrial ash.

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Toni Morrison

This landmark 1987 slavery tale is set in the wake of the Civil War, in the free state of Ohio. Escaped slave Sethe and her withdrawn daughter Denver are visited by a charismatic young woman, Beloved, who appears to be the ghost of the daughter Sethe killed to keep her from captivity. An alternative reading sees Beloved as the physical manifestation of a memory suppressed by the trauma of slavery.

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Native Son
Richard Wright

Published in 1940, Native Son was one of the first Afro-American novels to tackle racism in the US, and was an immediate bestseller. Protagonist Bigger Thomas, trapped in poverty on Chicago’s South Side, accidently commits a violent crime which alienates both black and white and communities.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain

The lush banks, caves and islands of the wide Mississippi River are the backdrop to the adventures of Tom and his friend Huckleberry Finn, who skip school, run away from home and hunt for buried treasure. Published in 1876, it remains a much-loved masterpiece of American literature.

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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

This depression-era novel, published in 1939, follows the desperate Joad family as they leave their Oklahoma home to hit the road in search of work. John Ford made the story into a film in 1940.

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Kent Haruf

Tom Guthrie is struggling to bring up his two young sons alone. In the same town, school girl Victoria Roubideaux finds herself pregnant and homeless. Whilst Tom’s sons find their way forward without their mother, quiet and gentle Harold and Raymond McPheron agree to take Victoria in, unaware that their lives are about to change forever.

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A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle

Baker Street's most famous detective rarely ventures outside of Europe, however, Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel includes a lengthy flashback to 19th-century Utah, where a father and his daughter are rescued by Mormons on the condition that they adopt the Mormon faith. When the daughter is forced to marry a Mormon and her father is murdered, her lover seeks revenge. 

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The Joy Luck Club
Amy Tan

Mahjong is the linking thread of this 1989 San Francisco novel, connecting three Chinese immigrant women and their four daughters. The older women tell stories of hardship in China whilst playing the game, and the younger women recognize the ties that bind them to their mothers and the past.

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The Black Dahlia
James Ellroy

LA crime fiction at its most seedily compelling, with the LAPD’s Bucky Bleichert forming an obsession with a murdered woman. The writing of this 1987 novel was triggered by Ellroy’s investigation of his own mother’s killing, and by the bizarrely grisly case of a murdered would-be actress.

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The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler

Complex 1939 crime drama featuring the quintessential wise-cracking hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe. Contrary to the popular image, Chandler’s LA is dark, wet and broody.

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Point Omega
Don DeLillo

DeLillo's unnerving post-Iraq novel, Point Omega tells the story of Richard Elster, a retired secret war adviser who has retreated to a forlorn house in a desert, ‘somewhere south of nowhere’. But his planned isolation is interrupted when he is joined by a young filmmaker intent on documenting his experience in a one-take film. 

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Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy

A sparely written 1985 novel that subverts the mythology of the wild west. Blood Meridian follows the story of a runaway kid who joins a brutal gang of scalp-hunters on the border between Texas and Mexico.

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A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams

We’ve snuck in a sultry drama amongst the great American novels, with the 1947 tale of faded and vulnerable southern belle Blanche DuBois, propelled into madness whilst staying with her downtrodden sister and domineering brother-in-law on Elysian Fields in New Orleans.

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Light in August
William Faulkner

The master of modernist southern Gothic, Faulkner centres his 1932 novel on the figure of Joe Christmas, who lives between the black and white communities. While racial conflict and marginalisation is a theme, the isolation of the individual is also key.

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The Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison

Much of the action of this uncompromising 1952 classic of African American literature takes place in Harlem, but it begins at black college in Alabama. There the broken fountain in the courtyard symbolises the barrenness of the institution’s placatory regime.

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Ellen Feldman

Feldman’s 2008 novel is based on the true 1931 story of nine black youths falsely arrested for rape on a freight train. Scottsboro gives voice to the victims – black and white – of this infamous case. 

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The Color Purple
Alice Walker

Published in 1982 and set in rural Georgia, The Color Purple explores racism and sexism as well as the positive bonds of sisterhood.

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Gore Vidal

Lincoln’s presidency comes to life through the eyes of his true-life family members and colleagues – Vidal’s historical novel was written in 1984 and based on contemporary sources.

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Henry David Thoreau

One of the most influential works of early American literature. It recounts the author's experiences living in a small house in the woods around Walden Pond in the 1840s. His attempt to live independently and away from society produced a work that blends natural history with philosophical insights.

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Now that you've covered some of the classics, why not explore the best new American writing with Picador's Year of American Fiction?
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