Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and 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 Drew Magary’s The Hike, an imaginative, hysterical episodic tale of perseverance featuring a host of unlikely characters, including charming talking crab.

A breathtaking whirlwind of surrealism, where the unexpected lurks around every corner and the plot contorts in ways you never see coming – that’s Drew Magary’s The Hike

From the very first page, this book catapults the reader into its narrative frenzy, with twists and surprises that are not mere literary embellishments; they are the backbone of a narrative that pushes the boundaries of utter absurdity while slowly unveiling deeper, more profound layers of meaning. You’ll find yourself oscillating between bewildered amusement and contemplative awe as you navigate this wildly frenetic yet delightfully entertaining journey. 

Reading The Hike is like stepping into the Twilight Zone: just when you think you know where you’re headed, something outrageous happens that proves your instincts to be spectacularly, and often hilariously, wrong. As you turn each page, you’ll find yourself attempting to decipher its elusive destination – just where is this weird story going, what is it getting at? – all the while surrendering to its exhilarating unpredictability. Prepare for things to get weird, fast. Also, prepare for the bad to get worse, and then worse, and then unimaginably worse – yet even at the lowest of moments, Magary finds ways to make the reader laugh out loud. This book is a riotous rollercoaster of innovation that defies genre conventions, offering an eclectic mix of terror, philosophy, romance and a dash of sci-fi/fantasy that’s nothing short of mind-bending. One might even say that The Hike reads the way a video game plays.

At first glance, the plot of The Hike might seem too outlandish for the more realistic – and “serious” – readers: Ben, an unremarkable family man on a business trip at a rural countryside hotel, decides to kill time between meetings by taking a short hike. But instead of a pleasant afternoon jaunt, he finds himself on an epic life-or-death journey, forced to press on and on attempting to survive one bizarre encounter after the next in hopes of one day seeing his family again. 

For all its obvious eccentricities, the story has layers of literary merit waiting to be uncovered. What appears to be popcorn entertainment on the surface soon reveals itself as a deep well of wisdom and contemplation. Yet what truly sets this novel apart is its ability to shock and disorient, a feat it accomplishes with finesse. It doesn’t play by the rules, it gleefully breaks them – and that’s precisely what makes it unforgettable. It’s also what makes The Hike an ideal choice for anyone looking to get out of a reading slump. If this book doesn’t do it, nothing else will.

Now, The Hike is also funny, we’ve established that much. But that doesn’t mean that’s all it is. Beneath the jokes, Magary weaves a tapestry of profound themes that will resonate with any reader, themes of regret, resilience and unwavering dedication that form the very fabric of this captivating narrative. 

Ben finds himself on an uncharted path, one that demands absolute dedication or threatens his very existence. It’s a path fraught with uncertainty, yet it carries an ambiguous promise: the distant hope of reuniting with his beloved wife and children. In this desolate wilderness, where nothing is freely given nor easily obtained, regret simmers beneath the surface, a constant reminder of the choices that led him here. The reader will inevitably, at one point or another, wonder what their own choices would be in Ben’s situation. 

Then, as the story unfolds, and as Ben traverses this surreal landscape, he encounters vivid echoes of his past, flashbacks to childhood traumas that refuse to go away. Among them, the spectral presence of a dog that once attacked him, now a recurring motif. These experiences serve to remind readers that our past is an inescapable part of our present, and the choices we make stay with us. 

Ben’s journey is a long (at one point, seemingly never-ending) sequence of encounters, each a small adventure in itself, each holding a morsel of revelation about his purpose and his path. In his plight, he becomes a protagonist the reader can identify with, a beacon of hope in a bewildering landscape. We cheer for him, not just to find his way home but to emerge from this surreal odyssey, alive and transformed.

A particular highlight of the book is the cast of quirky characters that Ben meets along his journey, including a talking – and remarkably profane – crab. We won’t give away the mystery surrounding this crustaceous companion, but suffice it to say, this crab is no ordinary creature. With a vocabulary that can make a sailor blush and a personality as sharp as its claws, this side-kick crab adds a healthy dash of irreverent humour to Ben’s adventures. Next up is the friendly yet homicidal (ahem, cannibal) giantess. Gargantuan and repulsive, with an intimidating appearance and murderous tendencies, she still manages to have an endearing quality that’s hard to ignore; her interactions with Ben offer a glimpse into the unexpected alliances that can form in the most unlikely of places. And then there’s the Spanish Conquistador, a figure from the annals of history who joins Ben on an especially difficult part of his arduous journey. And that’s only our top three.

The Hike is a literary adventure that defies easy categorisation, a book that challenges the intellect, sense of humour, and comfort zone of its audience. Is this book for everyone? That would be a resounding, definite “no”. However if you possess a skewed sense of humour and a penchant for the absurd, The Hike comes highly recommended. Beyond its layers of weirdness and unpredictability, the plot reveals a surprising coherence and is neatly tied together, albeit in a distinctly bizarre fashion – a testament to Magary’s creativity. 

As for the ending, it’s nothing short of mind-blowingly unexpected, leaving an indelible mark on those who dare to embark on this unconventional literary journey.

Further Reading

If The Hike leaves you with a thirst for excitement, you can try reaching for Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or, if non-fiction floats your boat but you still want some of that humour, get your hands on David Foster Wallace’s Big Red Son. That’s one you’re also unlikely to forget.

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