Michael George’s Horses, Lemons, and Pretty Girls belongs to the road novel genre. To be more precise, it is an exemplar of the proletarian road novel. Like Kerouac’s iconic On the Road, it is the story of young men traveling across the United States in search of adventure and epiphany. Also like Kerouac’s novel, George’s story has the ring of autobiography. If exploration and adventure place the novel in the Kerouac lineage, the proletarian focus moves it into the Grapes of Wrath genealogy.
The young protagonist, Dave Sanders, travels with his friend, Ben, from the Midwest to the Southeast, “for the hell of it.” Sanders later travels on his own back in the Midwest and, near the novel’s end, all the way to San Francisco. Drifting through life, the protagonist seeks work and lodging wherever he can find it. Disdainful of owners and foremen, he remains true to his working-class roots. A typical description of the owner class is this: “men in business suits, screaming orders.” These roots are evident in the precise description of manual labor, whether tearing down drilling rigs near Fargo or removing bricks from box cars in Florida.
The most striking example is a sequence in which Sanders and his brother build an addition to a house. Though on its face this task sounds routine, it becomes a labor of love and high adventure. In contrast to the working-class ethos, he studies the field of computer programming and is split between his identity as a carpenter and programmer. Yet the novel includes moments of lyricism: “Then we left the beach for the hills behind it and found a small meadow near the back of a cove. It was surrounded by hills and vine-covered trees. The ground was covered with lush green grass, studded with spring’s wildflowers. Scattered among the trees, not yet ripe berries grew in thick dark patches. A cold spring bubbled out of a hillside, coming alive as a stream, only to meet a sudden death in the vast open sea.”
Though working class, the protagonist is not a libertarian with a firm belief in social—including racial—justice. He calls himself an “apathist…someone who doesn’t care what other people do as long as what they do doesn’t hurt anyone, and they don’t try to force what they do or believe onto anyone else.”
The novel is set in the sixties: careless use of alcohol; free sex, which turns out to be anything but free; restlessness; Vietnam. The protagonist unabashedly enjoys beer in the morning. Though a casual practitioner of promiscuity, he is a hopeless romantic. Though he searches for stability, he finds it difficult to stay in one place for long. Vietnam provides a disturbing undercurrent.
This novel, besides its road genesis, shines the light of democracy on the darkness of privilege and injustice. One of the preeminent virtues is the authenticity of the first-person voice. The protagonist hides nothing; he allows the reader access not only to his strengths but to his failings. His candor is linked to his childlike unmediated vision of paradise lost: corporate farms replacing the family farm of his childhood, the plague of bosses infecting the working-class ethos, and environmental degradation.
These issues aside, the most important thing is that this book is a good read as the reader avidly follows David Sanders on his adventures in expectation of epiphany, the outcome of his search for authenticity.