The End of the Road (1958)
by John Barth
The 1001 Books project has been an odyssey for me. Starting with the utter unfamiliarity of 18th century literature, moving through the banality of 19th century Victorian prose and washing up on the shore of 20th century modernism. Set against this backdrop, the mid 20th century feels like terra firma, walking up the beach and into the familiar terrain of a metaphorical mid to late 20th century Southern California beach town. The world of John Barth and his contemporaries is one that I recognize. For the first time, I'm simply filling in gaps in my formal and personal education instead of reading entire decades of prose for the first time in my life.
Many of the books in the 1001 Books list from the 1950s onward are either books I was assigned to read in school, read on my own or saw on the book shelves of my parents and their friends. Barth is in that third category: never got assigned his books, never got around to reading his books, but I remember seeing his name on the shelves of the Bay Area professionals and academics who tended to be the parents of my classmates (and my own parents.)
The editors of the 1001 Books project are no Barth fans- including only the early works of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are included. Neither of these titles would be considered his most notable work- that would be The Sot-Weed Factor or Lost in the Funhouse. The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not formally a prequel/sequel/two book series type situation, but they are close enough in character, incident and theme to make their publication as a single volume in 1988 make perfect sense.
Barth was an academic- working at Penn State when he wrote both The Floating Opera and this book. In The End of the Road, the protagonist is a young (non tenured) college professor, suffering from a sort of obscure indecisiveness that one might call an existential dilemma. He meets a young couple, he is a professor at the same college, she a conventional 50's house wife. It starts as a fairly light hearted comedy of manners, but ends in a tortuously botched abortion and death for the unfaithful wife. Jacob Horner might as well be the same guy as Todd Andrews, the lawyer-protagonist from The Floating Opera. Both characters pretend to be indifferent to fate and eventually succumb to what one might call karmic just deserts.
Both books are relentlessly dark, existential or nihilistic if you will. Barth is more in tune with the French existenialism of the 1950s and I wonder how much he really influenced American authors of the early 1960s. Did Ken Kesey read The End of the Road and The Floating Opera before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?