Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is a riveting American road novel that hasn’t yet hit icon status: Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away.

In the hallowed tradition of the great American road trip novel, Jim Dodge carves a unique path with his 1987 novel Not Fade Away. A genre deeply ingrained into the occidental literary landscape, a testament to the nation’s fascination with exploration, self-discovery and the vastness of its own geography now finds a new exponent. That’s really what Dodge’s book is all about: the American spirit on the move. Whether that spirit is a positive or negative force is up for readers to decide. 

The novel follows George Gastin, a Bay Area tow truck operator who is entangled in a clandestine insurance racket that centres around wrecking cars. Among the vehicles destined for demolition, a snow-white Cadillac stands out – a car meant as a gift for the late Big Bopper, a tragic victim of the plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Gastin intervenes in the demolition, however, igniting an irrepressible impulse to seize the Cadillac and embark on an audacious escapade (defying his employers, of course). 

And so the titillating road trip, which makes up most of the story, begins. With a thousand doses of Benzedrine fuelling his journey, and pursued by foes both real and imagined, Gastin hurtles through a kaleidoscope of miles and mindsets, traversing the shifting tides of the Beat era to the brink of the sixties. On his way, he picks up quite the motley crew – including a self-proclaimed “world’s greatest salesman”, an enigmatic reverend called Double-Gone Johnson, and a weary housewife safeguarding a box of treasured 45s. As the seemingly hundreds of dozens of Benzedrine doses kick in, reality becomes increasingly blurred, entwining vivid fantasies and rock n’ roll. 

Not Fade Away is an extremely funny book. For some readers, this could be reason enough to crack it open. If you possess a restless type of curiosity or have a penchant for harmless mischief, this is the book for you; a generous dose of humour and comedy runs like a sparkling thread through the narrative. Dodge’s sharp wit and comedic sensibility infuse the narrative with a playful energy that will keep readers turning the pages. From hilarious misadventures and absurd escapades to witty banter, clever wordplay and spirited dialogue, Not Fade Away is brimming with laugh-out-loud moments that will have readers grinning from ear to ear.

Another reason to add this book to your reading list? The music. For hardcore music fans, Not Fade Away will strike a resounding chord. The book encapsulates the essence of the hardcore music scene, immersing readers in its unyielding power and relentless energy. Through vivid descriptions and a profound understanding of the music world, Jim Dodge transports the reader to a bygone era, where the coffeehouses of North Beach reverberate with the pulsating beats of true rock ‘n’ roll. 

The soundtrack, simply put, is mind-blowingly, maybe even life-alteringly great. Readers are whisked off to a realm where the power of music transcends mere entertainment, becoming a driving force for self-discovery and rebellion. Beyond the impeccably selected melodies, the novel delves into themes of identity, freedom and the preternatural power of music. It’s a literary sanctuary where hardcore music lovers can find solace, inspiration and a renewed appreciation for the art form that defines them. Rest assured, Mr. Dodge knows his music and his rock ‘n’ roll history.

As for literary world-building, Dodge’s fascinating supporting cast of characters is a true highlight. Imbuing the story with waves of nostalgia (as is the case of the housewife with 45s) and providing bouts of laughter and nuggets of wisdom (via Reverend Double-Gone Johnson), they’re likely the highest point in the novel. Unbelievably ‘real’ and interesting, they’re made all the more spellbinding through Dodge’s masterful use of dialogue. Something to keep in mind? If you’re the type to cringe at swearing, you might want to steer clear of Not Fade Away

The same could be said about the book’s treatment of substance abuse, which is dealt with  using unflinching honesty and provocative intensity. This narrative is not suitable for those lacking empathy towards addiction, as it captures the intricate dynamics of psychotropic drugs and alcohol. Dodge’s purposeful inclusion of, shall we say, scatological elements adds a gritty and authentic dimension to the story, making it a raw portrayal of the human condition. 

Through a remarkable exploration of the wide spectrum of emotions, from joy to despair, love to hatred, avarice to charity, this book exposes the depths of human experiences and the (sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes oddly comical) complexities surrounding substance abuse. The novel’s unrelenting portrayal of these themes offers readers a profound and thought-provoking examination of addiction and its impact on individuals and society.

Not Fade Away, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a picaresque novel, possesses a unique charm that may captivate certain readers while leaving others yearning for a more tightly woven plot. Jim Dodge’s writing shines in this beautifully crafted and thought-provoking work, but those seeking a clear-cut narrative structure might find themselves adrift amidst its meandering episodes and chance encounters. While the book’s philosophical musings and introspective moments invite deep contemplation, they may prove too leisurely for readers who crave a faster pace and an action-packed storyline. You won’t find that here. Nevertheless, for those willing to embark on a literary journey that embraces ambiguity and revels in the unexpected, Not Fade Away rewards with its poetic prose and evocative exploration of the human experience.

Further Reading

Not Fade Away will appeal to readers who appreciate literary fiction and poetic prose. Fans of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley will find similar themes of self-discovery, adventure and the pursuit of an authentic existence. Furthermore, readers with an affinity for the American West and a yearning for exploration will be captivated by the novel’s vivid descriptions of the region’s landscapes and the idiosyncratic characters that inhabit them. Those who enjoy Not Fade Away could potentially also appreciate Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for its American road travel plot, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, for its humour and structure.

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