Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Joyride by Travis Laurence Naught.
I recently watched the new Tom Ford movie, Nocturnal Animals. Half of the movie takes place in the real world where an artist tries to navigate her hollow life and the other half takes place in a novel that the artist’s ex-husband wrote. The fictional storyline is about a stranger in a desert town trying to track down his family’s murderers with the help of a rogue detective. One of my complaints about Nocturnal Animals was that the fictional story was more engaging than the real one which resulted in a lopsided movie. The main reason the fictional story was more intriguing was because of the dread it was able to evoke. From the start it didn’t seem like anything could go right and that ominous tone carried the tension throughout. At the start of Travis Laurence Naught’s Joyride, I thought it was going to follow the same beats—which isn’t a bad thing, it’s a classic thriller formula. But as I read Joyride it became apparent that Naught was trying to do something different within the genre.
Naught’s novel opens on a couple, Garrett and Tammi, taking a desert vacation in an attempt to save their failing marriage. At this point in their life together Garrett isn’t as decisive and authoritative as he once was and this is an issue for Tammi. At the same time, there is a group of four teenagers riding their motorcycles across the desert looking to get their adrenaline pumping. At just the right moment the two stories collide—though no bodily harm is done, just one wrecked motorcycle. After a false departure, there is a verbal confrontation with Boyd, the teenagers’ ringleader, and he is shown to be unstable. In a fit of rage, he disappears into the desert. Garrett and Tammi get the advice to leave sooner than later to avoid Boyd’s full temper. As the couple gathers their belongings to make an exit, Tammi is bitten by a spider. They rush through the darkness headed for the hospital when they crash into Boyd, who was on his way back to harass the couple. Boyd’s death is the incident putting the novel into motion. It brings Garrett and Tammi closer together while they head back to California for a photo shoot. At the same time, the death rocks Harker—one of Boyd’s best friends—so hard he convinces his mom to leave town and start fresh. Both stories move west without the knowledge of the other and the juxtaposition between their lifestyles pushes the story further.
After Boyd’s death, Garrett and Tammi are stranded in a small New Mexico town while their SUV gets fixed. One night, they get dressed up for a date night and search for the fanciest restaurant in town (spoiler: it’s not all that fancy) and while they’re there the judge that presided over the manslaughter charge is taken aback by their presence. It’s a small town and even the death of a deviant is still a loss for the community. The glamorous couple didn’t consider the insensitivity of their actions. This scene is effective in that it creates the ominous tone hinting the couple may not be safe staying in town, but also works on how differing lifestyles will influence someone’s external outlook. They have a different mindset than the small town and the bumping ideologies makes for an interesting narrative. Though some of this insight is lost when Garrett and Tammi head out of town and they’re not forced to confront differing perspectives.
The novel is told in third person omniscient. While this gives us everyone’s thoughts and desires (and occasionally the whereabouts of animals), I don’t think it adds to the overall story so much as it hinders it. This perspective is alluring because it gives an all-encompassing look at the world and characters, but it’s the most difficult to do successfully because when we know what everyone is thinking it makes connecting with the characters on a deeper level more difficult. Just when we think we understand a character on our own, Naught jumps to another character’s inner thoughts. Naught does a good job of keeping all the thoughts straight and I wasn’t confused by whose head we were in at any given moment, but I felt that leaving some of their motivations and reflections unspoken might have added to the overall story. At the same time, we’re forced into taking everyone’s thoughts at face value. There isn’t the opportunity for an unreliable narrator because we’re moving around so much. In a novel set within the thriller genre, an unreliable narrator can help stretch the tension, but Naught didn’t have that opportunity based on this point of view.
Another aspect of the novel I didn’t expect was the goodness of the characters. Joyride is filled with characters with the best intentions. The only character with malicious intent was Boyd and since he died in the beginning we didn’t get the opportunity for any more devious behavior. We’re left with characters getting helped along by the unassuming kindness of strangers and, while this is a hopeful take, it cannot help but feel inauthentic after so many situations that happen to resolve neatly and positively.
Travis Laurence Naught is giving us his version of a thriller in Joyride. I enjoyed how he paralleled the different stories and played them against one another; not just from a narrative standpoint, but also thematically. The beginning is promising—an examination of how socioeconomic differences shape how someone sees their world. When the story slows down, in the middle section, it felt like Naught had to work extra hard to get it going again for the end. With this he creates an ending that relies too heavily on coincidence to be truly fulfilling. While a less convenient ending would have undermined Naught’s tone of hopefulness, it may have added the authenticity I found wanting.