Roving Ramblers Make the Best Protagonists

From The Millions:

I often talk with other writers about the engines of stories: features of character, plot or even object that allow the narrative happenings to unfold. Sometimes this engine can be literal, as in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” O’Connor’s classic tale features a family on a road trip: An actual vehicle moves the plot along from moment to eventual tragic moment. In other iconic works, the engine is more difficult to pinpoint. By whatever strange magic Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On The Shore guides us through its pages, it is not so simple as the causal churning of gears endemic to most plots. More the hidden engine of dreams, which we are better able to intuit than we can explain.

Of all such engines, the “roving rambler” archetype has fascinated me most over the years: fast-talking, ever-moving characters of modern literature liable to take us on strange, unpredictable rides by way of their fidgety feet and hyperactive minds. Restless and unrestrained, they get themselves into trouble and have to work their way out of it. They are the consummate raconteurs; their stories are powered as much by their madcap interactions as by their introspective asides. There tends to be something bothering them, but they don’t want to disclose their distress, or will do so only discursively. Most often they’re found in cities, where the urban landscape’s constant onslaught of sites, sounds, and strangers naturally lends itself to rambling.  In fact, to allow the protagonist of my own novel, Pay As You Go, as much space to ramble as he would like, I went about making up a city from scratch, then populating it with as many interlocutors as would fit its tangled grid. His name is Slide, and the city’s name Polis.

In honor of the literary wanderers that precede Slide, I’ve composed a small collection of novels, novellas, and a short story that feature roving ramblers of various stripes. Some are chattier than others, but they all boast that penchant for discursive aside and spontaneous interaction characteristic of the archetype—and perhaps the only appropriate response to modern life’s mania.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie moves through New York with both the thrust of desire and the comfort in squalor mainly found in twentysomething city dwellers. Her apartment is a mess, the coworkers she’s slept with have taken to avoiding her, she’s jaded about the performative hypocrisy of her employer, a publishing house, and wary of the more pleasant-seeming Black woman they recently hired, as if to replace her. (Which they do.) She’s also sleeping with a married man. It’s an explosive cocktail, lit on fire by Leilani’s sharp wit and kinetic pace as we move from city to suburbs and back again. Edie misses nothing: She divulges about marital relations, erotic pleasure, absurdities of race, painting, and family ruptures, whether others or her own. As for what’s bothering her? It’s a little bit of everything.

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

A contemporary of García Márquez and a poet for most of his literary life, Mutis began writing this series of novellas in his sixties—almost as a surprise to himself—after a recurring character from his poems began to speak to him in more fully formed prose. Maqroll the Gaviero, or Watcher, is a standout in modern literature, a world-weary wanderer more at home in the worn tomes always on his person than in the brash, semi-legal farces in which he finds himself. We follow him up the length of a jungle-piercing river in search of dubious riches and to the heat-drenched bustle of a teeming port city, rubbing shoulders with various criminals, accomplices, lovers, and friends along the way. Farcical, baroque, and always in search of meaning, these stories operate in the highest echelon of linguistic artistry.

Link to the rest at The Millions