Growing up in Detroit, car culture always fascinated author Michael Zadoorian. He remembers car camping with his parents, riding out to the West Coast and taking small sections of Route 66.
In his latest novel, “The Leisure Seeker,” Zadoorian sets a couple down that same historic highway, as they make one last road trip to get their kicks on a Detroitto-Disneyland journey.
The book’s protagonists, Ella and John Robina, are both looking death square in the eye — Ella faces cancer, John Alzheimer’s — but it won’t stop them from following their dream one more time and doing it with the wit and wisdom of a couple married more than 50 years. Their story is told with tenderness and love and covered in huge globs of humor, some of it dark.
Zadoorian’s writing was interrupted by his own father’s slow death from Alzheimer’s. He said he wasn’t sure if he would ever write again following the release of his cult classic “Second Hand” nearly 10 years ago. “After my father died in 2004, I needed to write something,” Zadoorian said. “I started, and it didn’t take me long. My father’s Alzheimer’s was instrumental in getting me going.”
Zadoorian said writing the road trip was the easiest part of the book, but he worked hard at making it funny. “I wanted the couple in the book to always make each other laugh and, after all the years, still see the strangeness and absurdity,” he said.
While Zadoorian managed to find plenty of strangeness in the world around t h e R o b i n a s , the interaction between the two is pure genius, as John handles the driving and his spouse the directions.
For Zadoorian, the road trip was always important. “There is an American tradition of independence and freedom,” he said. “I like to say that this is what would’ve happened if Kerouac hadn’t drunk himself to death. This would be the trip he would take.”
What a trip it turns out to be. Anyone who has trekked west across the United States knows the ribbon strips along Route 66 are littered with odd attractions, such as the Wigwam Motel and the Leaning Tower of Texas, and even odder tourists. After spending their day seeing the sights, John and Ella relive their youth by watching slide shows from previous road trips; sometimes the lure of the open road leads them to some steamy sex.
The couple has the time of their life on what might be their last trip, which includes a run-in with police, roadside predators and a young goth kid who helps them out of a jam. The real story, however, goes on in their heads, as they make their way West to the setting sun. It doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out where the book is going, but it never gets melodramatic.
Zadoorian writes with a strong sense of visual action that could easily transfer to the screen, and it just might. The same day his book was optioned, he also inked an option on a movie contract. Reading about the adventures of John and Ella, it’s not hard to imagine the aging Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda taking to the road to the tune of “Born to be Be Wild” in an off-kilter sequel to “Easy Rider” that takes place 40 years later.
For now, Zadoorian, who lives in Royal Oak and writes ad copy by day, seems to be on a roll after 10 years of dormancy. With a new novel on the shelves and winning critical praise, Wayne State University Press will publish a collection of his short stories, “The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit,” this spring.
Michael Zadoorian, author of “The Leisure Seeker”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19 Schuler Books & Music, 1982 Grand River Ave., Okemos FREE (517) 349-8840 www.schulerbooks.com