By Sharlene Baker
Knopf. 241 pp. $18.95
FROM HOMER's Odyssey to Hope and Crosby's epic road flicks; from Jack Kerouac's Beat novels to Charles Kuralt's off-the-beaten-track reporting, the "on-the-road" experience has been defined by men. Throughout history, men have cast themselves out into the world to celebrate their triumph over female domesticity and to discover life's possibilities. In contrast, the rare female versions of the on-the-road narrative are far grimmer, women mostly leave home to escape intolerable circumstances: "A Doll's House" is a preamble to an on-the-road story and Jane Eyre turns into one. Of course, restless madwomen also roam the margins of women's literature: the narrator's doppelganger in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"; Shakespeare's "sister"; Judith, in A Room of One's Own. But, generally, women in literature -- and life -- stay put. The Torvalds and Rochesters they know tend to seem less menacing than the strangers cruising down the highway.
Sharlene Baker's first novel, Finding Signs, tries to claim the traditional on-the-road narrative for women, with mixed results. Baker's main character, 23-three-year-old Brenda Bradshaw, travels awfully far -- cross county and back, up and down and up the California coast -- just to meet a few cliches. The tramps, con-artists, perverts and truckers with hearts as big as their diesel rigs are the standard eccentrics who (with minor historical changes) have populated every American on-the-road story since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Finding Signs also develops its own mildly diverting momentum. Reading it is like going on a bus tour of Washington. The sights are familiar, so is the patter. But every so often, the bus may take a detour, prompting the guide to abandon her prescribed script and improvise some lyrical fictions that make the trip more pleasurable.
Like most male on-the-road tales, Finding Signs offers a very flimsy motivation to propel its heroine into action. Brenda sets out to hitchhike from San Diego to Spokane because of a letter she receives from a lover she hasn't seen in five years. The complete text reads: "Brenda! I've passed the bar exam at long last and I'm ready to start living again. Visit me. Visit me. Visit me. Al." It's a sure indication that Finding Signs is only a fair on-the-road novel when you catch yourself wondering, as I did, why Brenda just doesn't phone Al first before she spends two months hitchhiking. When an on-the-road narrative is really absorbing, you don't care why characters begin to travel, you just hope they never stop. (Jonathan Swift, for instance, devoted half a paragraph on page one of Gulliver's Travels to his hero's reason for leaving England; no one ever remembers or cares what it was.)
The mechanical aspects of Baker's plotting and characterization, however, are often redeemed by more freshly-imagined descriptions of Brenda's childhood. Wanderlust apparently infected Brenda early. As an Air Force brat, she crisscrossed the country with her parents and brother, Will. Those childhood trips are a blank, however, because Brenda's mother always knocked the kids out with Valium, to keep them from whining. "There were probably twenty thousand miles of pavement that streaked beneath me as I snoozed, as I dreamt it all away." Brenda is determined not be borne along, unconscious, through any other parts of her life; that's why she can't accept a routine job or relationship. But the trade-off for a life of constant surprises is intermittent danger and almost constant loneliness. At night, Brenda arranges her bedroll by the side of the highway or in a traffic island smack in the middle, hidden by the tall grass. It's oddly cozy at night, but morning rush hours are rough:
"I'm tangled in my sleeping bag on the hard cold dirt, my fingernails black, there is no way to get warm, no way to get clean, and I have no strength to do anything but crawl back down into my bag until it covers my head and blow onto my icy fingers, try to deep-breathe and calm myself, but it is too late; I cry cold tears for myself alone and lonely . . . while dozens of people drive past me, drowsy from just having left their warm marriage bed, and it is true, it is true, what they say: that your own worst enemy is yourself."
Women, and men, who sleep out on the road too long usually come to bad ends, but Brenda is lucky -- she falls in love. Finding Signs opens by challenging the sexism of a genre; it ends by reaffirming that there is only one fitting conclusion to a woman's story. Unfortunately, we've found this sign too many times before. Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is a regular contributor to "Fresh Air" on National Public Radio.