I’m of two minds on Drew Magary’s The Hike (2016). On the one hand, it’s a fast, energetic, often funny and sometimes moving work. On the other hand, its plotting feels wholly capricious and arbitrary and some of the territory it wanders is well-worn or less profound than it seems like it wants to be taken. I mostly like my books with a bit more structured depth, and if you do as well, then I think you’ll zip through and enjoy The Hike while also being a bit annoyed. But if you’re looking for is a fun video game kind of ride with a smattering of emotionality, you’ll just enjoy.
Magary begins pretty mundanely, with the main character Ben on a business trip in a mountaintop motel in Pennsylvania. He sets off on a trail behind the motel, and then things turn grimly dark as he witnesses a horrific event that leads to a horror-movie type of chase scene. Soon the “path” he was on has become “The Path,” a magically marked road in a frighteningly surreal world. If he wishes to get home, Ben has to make his way to the end of the Path and find The Producer, overcoming a series of obstacles both living and not (puzzles, giants, dog-faced monsters) with only the help of a talking crab he picks up on the way.
As noted, The Hike is a fast-moving work, despite coming in at just under 400 pages. I read it in a single sitting of just a few hours. Magary keeps things moving apace, save for a few sections that carry on perhaps a little too long. His fluid prose carries the reader along smoothly and easily even if they won’t find themselves lingering over it for its lyricism or startling nature. The humor is another reason it goes down so easily, most of it coming from that crab, who is, well, kinda crabby. The crab is given a run for its comic money, though, by Fermona the giant, who runs a kind of Thunder Dome Buffet for herself. The book isn’t all lightness and humor, however. Magary’s portrait of Ben’s suburban family life is a bit thin, but does strike some emotional chords in scenes where Ben is with or thinking of his children.
The episodic nature is one of the reasons the books drives forward so quickly and easily, as there is not much connecting tissue between events (nor does Magary spend much time on description). That’s the upside of the video game/dungeon crawl aspect of The Hike. The downside is that it all feels a bit arbitrary and disconnected. No need for cause and effect; it’s just surreal. No need for any real importance to a particular puzzle; it just needs to be solved. This issue nagged at me throughout, but one’s mileage will vary on this; some may not notice it at all or just shrug and go along for the ride. And to be fair, the author does offer up an explanation towards the end of why some of Ben’s encounters took the form they did. And of course, if the Path is a metaphor for life, well, life itself can be more than a little surreal or random or lacking in meaning.
That last aspect is the other small niggling issue that prevented The Hike from moving from a pretty good read to a very good or excellent one. Life as a road is a well-trod, um, path in terms of metaphors, and not a particularly deep one. And I can’t say anything new is added to the extended metaphor in this story (persistence, adversity, etc., etc.). It’s not a bad metaphor, and Magary makes inventive use of it, but the metaphor and the randomness makes it all feel a little too easy.
My last complaint was that at times Ben didn’t react/act as I’d think a person might in particular situations. Again, one’s mileage may vary on this one.
I did enjoy The Hike; it went down easily and quickly and made me laugh more than a few times. It’s not a great book, but it’s a good read and one I’d recommend for when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.