Listen, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m not a fast reader. Despite doing a lot of book reviews (here and elsewhere) and actually working as an editor in the publishing industry, I don’t read very fast when it’s “for pleasure.” But I read through Drew Magary’s The Hike in two sittings. I opened up the book and the next thing I knew I was halfway through. It’s just that good.
Magary doesn’t waste any time here. The action and the weirdness that will suck you in begins on the second page. And it doesn’t let up until the last page. In brief, The Hike does for casual hiking what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean.
“Bad ideas always start off as bad jokes.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Magary himself has distilled his elevator pitch for the book down to “It’s The Odyssey but with cursing.” Yet that sells the book short. The Hike is an existential, metaphysical journey into what would happen if you ended up in an alternate universe that challenged everything you thought you knew about yourself.
“Of course, this had all been a massive cosmic troll job. Ben fully expected to walk up those stairs and find a giant papier-mâché middle finger waiting for him.”
But what if that world were like a point-and-click adventure computer game from the ’80s? Specifically, what if that world were like the classic King’s Quest games by Sierra?
It’s clear that The Hike has a lot of influences and references: Alice in Wonderland,. The Wizard of Oz. The Dark Tower, The Metamorphosis. Most surprisingly, though, is that reading The Hike feels like playing an old Sierra game. So much so that I pictured the characters as 8-bit pixelated avatars. Do I have your attention now?
Drew also grew up playing the Sierra games and admits, “They were weird games because they had these weird quirks in them. Games don’t have that anymore because games are better. Like, you’d go from one screen to another, and then you’d shuffle back into a screen five times because some goblin would only appear the fifth time you walked in. Because that’s just how the game worked–it was stupid. And those strange bits are random things, but they help suck you in. And so I wanted to have [in The Hike], on top of the narrative, the feeling that you’re playing along too. In a way that has an echo of playing a video game rather than direct references.”
“Menace could do that to you. Menace could own you.”
The book begins with Ben, our protagonist, traveling to a hotel in the Poconos for a business meeting. He has some time to kill before the meeting, so he sets off on a quick hike down a path through the woods behind the hotel. He gets lost. Really, really lost. By page 10, he’s already on the run after witnessing a dog-faced man carrying a mutilated corpse through the woods. Only to realize that every trace of the world he knew has disappeared.
He’s on a path through an alternate universe/reality, and he cannot deviate from it. If he strays from the path, he’ll die. But strange things are happening, and it’s clear that his path is being directed for him. Clues guide him to other clues, and things magically appear when they become required. Eventually, he learns that an ultimate confrontation with The Producer waits for him at the end of the path… if it ever comes.
“He could make out all kinds of bizarre constellations that had nothing to do with basic astronomy: ampersands, topsails, a human foot. Someone had shaken the heavens and let the universe resettle above him. And of course, there were the two moons. Equal in size. Always full. Never waxing. Never waning.”
Though the world–and most of the people–has disappeared, he’s not alone. There’s a profane, talking crab. And giants. And six-foot insects. And walking undead. And smoke monsters. And several other characters that are best left encountered on the page.
And not least of all a protagonist who just misses his life and family in suburban Maryland. When you step back and try to look beyond the fantastic elements and characters that populate the book, the story can be seen as an escapist fantasy every parent has at one time or another. “I just need some alone time!” In this case, it just goes terribly, horribly wrong.
Magary himself calls The Hike an allegory for business travel: “You get away but then you’re very, very lonely. A few years ago, when my kids were younger, I’d have those moments where I had to get away. And then I would get away and realized that I can’t live without those people; I’m totally codependent. I wanted to get home. So there’s that weird push and pull where you kind of want to get away, but then it happens and it’s not what it was cracked up to be in your mind.”
And I think it’s safe to say that no one plans for brainless mouth demons whose bite causes a mouth to grow around the wound.
What does Magary want you to feel after you’ve read The Hike? “Sometimes, when you walk out of a movie, and it really took you somewhere, you won’t say anything to the person you went with. You walk to the car and get in the car, and then you start talking about it–like you needed that time to soak it in. I think that’s good. I really don’t have, as a writer, a pressing need to implore meaning upon people. My only job is to tell you the best story I possibly can. And if you take some greater meaning from it, that’s awesome and that’s the bonus. But I can’t force that because then the strain shows.”
I just wouldn’t recommend taking the book with you on an actual hike in the woods. That’s probably not the best idea.
“He was just a man once more, everything about him now in correct proportion to his environs: his body, his clothes, his bag. It was vaguely disappointing.”