This is an essay I wrote for a course called “The Open Road in North American Narrative”

Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die

A Good Day to Die, like On The Road and Easy Rider before it, holds interest for me in the way it takes conventions of the road narrative and filters them through a cultural lens. While Kerouac’s version of the ‘50s could be said to be the catalyst for the druggy counterculture that transformed the ‘60s and is so depicted by Dennis Hopper’s film, Harrison’s novel gets no small amount of its characters’ fatalism from the fact it is written in the ‘70s, the decade that took the idealism and massive social change spawned by the counterculture and destroyed it. This loss of purpose came as a result of many occurrences, the most relevant to Harrison being Vietnam. These characters make up a lost generation, a bevy of, as Rilke describes so aptly in the foreword, “disinherited children to whom neither what’s been, nor what is coming, belongs.” They cannot help but parallel their country’s loss of a moral compass after their righteous invasion of Vietnam leads not to a fatal blow against Communism but to catastrophic loss of life. Hence, in order to find some happiness in life they take off on a road trip, with a beautiful woman in tow, only the finer details don’t add up to an adventure and randy comedy like Sideways. They take off in order to blow up a dam, and the woman isn’t some girl they pick up on the road who attracts both of them but the finest woman either of them has ever met and someone who Tim has been with and hurt repeatedly over a long period of time. The guys, Tim and the narrator, aren’t just lifelong chums looking for a good time but have barely met, Tim having left the hospital with a huge scar on his face from two tours in the war, as well as mental scars the reader doesn’t know about, and the narrator a 28-year old divorced fisherman, cranky, alcoholic, aimless, who “looked long and closely in the mirror for signs of incipient age and decay.” These guys like to get high and have sex but are too decrepit to associate themselves with the previous generation, or even their music: “But who were hippies these days when a shoestore owner in Waco, Texas, might be mistaken for a Rolling Stone… One particularly odious type in a Bill Blass outfit said to a younger clean-cut type that he had expanded and was ‘grooving on my own thing.’ I contemplated walking over and smashing his head in with my aluminum fly rod case.” Even their drugs, unlike Sal and Dean’s “tea,” are uppers and downers that help them recover from their prodigious drinking and discourage them from sex. Hence their disorganization leads them to omit possibilities in their planning for the dam, resulting in Tim’s stunning death and the narrator’s helplessness in assuaging his own and Sylvia’s guilt.


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