By MK Reed
From Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, the road trip has proven one of the most enduring, beloved, and decidedly America narrative conceits of the past half-century. There’s something undeniably appealing in the sense of freedom offered by the open road, the wind-blown hair, the strange new cultures, the opportunity lose one’s self in a strange land—qualities which are largely eschewed in MK Reed’s first full-length book.
On its surface, Cross Country is, by all reasonable measures, a road book, following two young men on a multi-week interstate in a four-door sedan, but the duo are not driven by Horatio Alger-inspired search for the American dream that fueled the likes of Hunter Thompson—their motivations are decidedly more modern, as blue-shirted representatives of a big box retailer, traveling the country to check up on a number of the corporation’s retail locations.
The motivation for the trip, then, is purely monetary, and as such, there’s little in the way of a Sal Paradise/Dean Moriarty kinship at play—rather, when the book opens, the bespectacled and sensitive narrator Ben’s inner monologue betrays a sense of downright resentment toward his supervisor-turned-traveling-companion, Greg. “I loathe him,” Ben declares inwardly of his frat boy partner, without the slightest hint of good humor.
It’s a rather confining scenario, two men and a tangible amount of hate jammed into a small import car, a combination of personality clashes and a protagonist practiced in the ways of sabotaging his own attempts at happiness. It’s a rather antithetical take of the genre, wherein their own vehicle proves a method for stifling freedom, rather than a conduit toward it—or, at least as the situation pertains to Ben (Greg, fittingly, seems to be having a grand old time, but Greg ultimately has few other redeeming values, and therefore is not positioned as a surrogate for the reader).
Where the standard idiom for the genre is something along the lines of ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey,’ neither of those aspects seems as important to Reed as her characters. Relationships and dialog are the author’s strong suits, and fortunately, she’s chosen to position them at the core of her narrative. The fights, the romance, the dream sequences—all ultimately serve to further interactions between the two polarized characters at the center of the story, and few settings can thrust interactions with such immediacy as within the front seat of a small car, even as the open countryside flies by outside.
Like her setting, Reed’s artwork also ultimately serves to further such key aspects of storytelling. Certain panels and scenes better display the artist’s capacity as a cartoonist, but ultimately Reed’s art feel as if it were spread a bit thin over the book’s 100-odd pages, a feeling not improved by the black and white copies, which lose the appeal of the book’s water-colored cover. As Reed’s own frequent collaborations with artist demonstrate, she seems to consider herself a writer first.
Reed, however, seems keenly aware of her strengths and weakness in his first full book, and Cross Country plays well to the former. The book plays out like a sociological experiment conducted in a rolling laboratory—two people interacting as a blurry country whizzes by. And, in the end, there’s no simple resolution, because, as is the case with most road trips, the destination is the same place you started.