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Posted on 21 Mar 2024 in Fiction |

LIAM MURPHY The Roadmap of Loss. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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Liam Murphy’s debut novel is both a road trip across the US and a journey into the past.

It’s tempting to invoke the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s famous poem ‘This Be The Verse’ here. That’s because The Roadmap of Loss is about unresolved childhood psychological trauma, and it’s on you, Mum and Dad. The narrator, Mark Ward, is a recently orphaned 25 year old, and this compassionate novel is about how he finally goes about (‘decides’ would be wrong) treating both his lifelong neurosis and his grief over the sudden loss of his mother. It’s also a worthy redux of the classic American road trip novel, taking in Route 66 and other iconic locations. Towards the end, Mark reflects on his zigzag journey across the US, a journey both narrative and personal, all the way from Staten Island to Santa Monica in a 1989 Mazda Miata shitbox:

I’d gone corner to corner across America, past packed strip clubs and empty bookstores, houses of god and all his children without homes. Seen beauty and ugly in extremes I never knew existed and locked eyes with both. I’d spread my pain like ashes over this land and hoped something would grow. Ten thousand hard, lonely miles

There is acceptance in Mark’s voice as the novel draws to a resolution where earlier his tone has cycled through denial, anger, bargaining and depression. If this all sounds serious, it is, but his story is occasionally leavened with a sub-ironic, late-Gen-X humour. Mark gives himself most of the best lines and they work best when they are lightly mocking. He eventually runs out of money while living on Johns Island in Charleston, South Carolina, and so has to work, which entails a mandatory pre-employment drug test.

‘”Hi there, I’m here to pee in a cup,” I said to [the medical centre] receptionist.’ There’s a bit of small talk but really it’s badinage from Mark to someone simply doing their job. ‘Be honest, did you dream about this moment in medical school?’ He is always pushing people away and self-sabotaging like this, although he can also be funny and wide open. There are a lot of bar-room scenes in the book and these would be repetitive were it not for the imaginative, sometimes offbeat scenarios that result.

In Nashville, ‘in a way becoming all too natural for me, I found myself gravitating towards uglier places with uglier people but with prettier hearts,’ he Hallmarks. Mark meets Steph that night, another Aussie, and for a short time they travel together, including (her idea) a camping trip into the Great Smoky Mountains featuring a close encounter with a mama grizzly bear that Murphy vividly renders. Mark can do a good pick-up line when he’s in the mood and there is a series of hook-ups in the book. Typically Mark is attracted to straight-talking, shit-together, intelligent and beautiful women whom he views as above himself. The novel is somewhat in praise of the good woman (mother, lover, nurturer). Romantic partners like Steph, Hannah and Lauren are in charge and can usually psychoanalyse Mark pretty quickly: he can be personable and high-functioning but in extremis nihilistic and self-destructive; he is hurting for sure.

But let’s go back to the setting. The novel opens in Melbourne in 1997 and Mark is:

Two years out of university and … still working in the recording studio of a small performing arts school in the city. What began as a Batchelor of Music and a make-do, part-time job had concluded in a degree in sound engineering and my entire foreseeable future.

As you can tell, his outlook is flat and the impression given is that Mum is really his only friend. Both now live on their own, Mark in a rental apartment, his mum still in their old Richmond home. She has single-parented Mark for 20 years. His dad, Dylan, flew the nest right after Mark’s fifth birthday – something about going away to find himself. This apparently wilful act of abandonment has come to devastate the two people he left behind. Mark’s mum, Celeste, is effectively widowed. She never meets her someone else and, it is hinted, becomes an alcoholic (although that label is never used). Whereas Mark perpetually blames himself: there must something wrong with him, why else would his dad just leave like that? Their trauma is compounded because Mark perennially wants to talk it out, but his mum does not, so he is stuck in the keepsake photo of his fifth birthday that remains in his wallet to this day. Instead there is an accepted but apocryphal story that says Dylan left home for America to travel on his own but died in a car crash shortly thereafter.

On page one, Mark recalls the phone call he receives at work to inform him that his mother has died. She had suffered a fatal heart attack. ‘I guess it was always going to be one or the other,’ Mark says later on to the doctor at the hospital. ‘Her heart or liver, I mean. They seemed to be in a race towards the finish line.’ You may already have picked up on various elisions here. This is a compellingly structured novel but it is not one that relies on total plot or complete explication of backstory. Reader beware: you will be left with some big unanswered questions, but that didn’t spoil the novel for this reviewer.

So far so conventional, maybe, but there’s a clever premise to come. Mark finds a hidden set of letters when he is clearing out his mum’s house in preparation for its sale, letters that were sent from his dad to his mum after Dylan left, letters that, until now, have remained a secret. What ensues is Mark following in the footsteps of both his parents. He flies to America like his dad and roughly retraces his journey from New York City to Los Angeles 20 years before. Mark is as much trying to find himself as he is his dad who (who knows?) may still be alive. He also starts to self-medicate like his mum, but Mark jumps straight into the deep end, appearing to set out to drink himself to death.

His dad’s letters are drip-fed to the reader in a form that provides the novel with a satisfying structure and pacing. There’s a pocketful of these – or at least that’s where Mark seems to keep them, not exactly in safekeeping. He somewhat unbelievably also manages to ration himself to reading only one at a time, never reading any further ahead, sometimes clocking weeks and many miles on the road between letters. It’s a great device nevertheless: we read each letter for the first time simultaneously with Mark. There are seven in total, all one- to two-pagers, and these are interstitially placed in the novel every 50 pages or so (it’s not rigidly metrical).

You keep reading for these reveals but you also care about Mark, and his travelogue across America is well described. Murphy can certainly write a good scene in the multiple senses of that word: there is evocative location writing – in the Grand Canyon section, for example – and a number of highly original set pieces, some of which result from Mark’s risk-taking behaviour and others from the ridiculous shit happens of budget travel.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the letters from Dylan don’t actually say that much. It’s not a failure of the novel, either. We learn that he still carries a torch for Celeste, that he still loves Mark, too, that also he sent money to Celeste, but not why she chose to protect her son from all this. That was enough for me. I could see Dylan as a dreamy young man in 1977, maybe a beatnik who had read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and wanted to emulate its trajectory and search for meaning. It is plausible that Dylan could at once be in love with Celeste and be a selfish prick (if he was) adrift in an overwhelming world. He may have had his faults and passed these on but in turn he may have had some kind of trauma of his own.

There is hard stuff in The Roadmap of Loss and although written plainly, it’s not always an easy read. But it contains hope, and Murphy manages a humanistic rather than formulaic ending. Any reader who has felt lost in their twenties, who may be struggling with some past darkness lurking in their psyche, will be able to relate to this book. Mark’s characterisation is utterly true-to-life and the road trip never gets old.

Lifeline 13 11 14.

Liam Murphy The Roadmap of Loss Echo Publishing 2024 PB 368pp $32.99

Paul Anderson is a freelance editor. He is the co-editor of The Power of a Football, a collection of Reclink footy stories, published in 2022 by WestWords Limited.

You can buy The Roadmap of Loss from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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