Nineteen years old, mired in boredom, and going nowhere fast, Matlock knows that he must escape the confines of his stiflingly conventional hometown. After a nihilistic encounter with someone else’s girlfriend at a house-party, he hits the road, anywhere but here his only destination. Matlock finds that he is not alone, and soon he is at the head of a ramshackle gang of the waifs and strays of Britain’s confused middle-class youth.
Wending their way westwards through a damp English summer, Matlock, Phil, Joe, Robert and Danny – each with his own unspoken fears and insecurities – wrestle with big questions, small budgets and endless hangovers. This is a story of friendship, self-discovery and tequila slammers, set on the borderlands of adulthood when the answer to everything seems almost in reach, somewhere along the next stretch of A-road…
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Freedom Like a Shopping Cart is a darkly humorous literary novella written by Alex Johnston, whose protagonist (Matlock) embarks on a never-ending quest to find his place in the world and comprehend the meaning of life.
I will be the first to admit that I’ve had my own rebellious phase in which I did things 40-year-old me would shake their head at– things I’m not proud of, but would never take back; it’s those same “growing pains” that made this book resonate with me as I followed these characters, who felt more like old friends, on a road trip and a series of pub crawls. With that said, the plot (in line with one of the book’s themes and much like Matlock’s life) seems to have no discernible, ultimate goal, but surprisingly, that was more than OK.
Freedom Like a Shopping Cart remains incredibly engaging thanks to realistic characters and description that is so gritty and vivid, you can’t help but feel the cushions of Matlock’s car plastered to your butt as you go along for the ride. One of my favorite lines was the description of the car accident that leads to Matlock’s first companion:
“The impact [of the car crash] had come at its front right wing and the panel had actually fallen off and lay on the ground rocking like the detached yet still twitching limb of a crushed insect.”
Most of the characters were incredibly easy to relate to– Joe, Phil, and Danny were my personal favorites. As for the protagonist, Matlock… if you can bypass the occasional feeling of taking a road trip with Holden Caufield, his voice makes the perfect lens through which Johnston cuts deep into the locales in the story– and he manages to do it all with finesse. While I can’t immediately agree with Johnston, having never been to any of these locations, he paints one hell of a picture:
“[The bartender’s] accent hailed from Essex, though it was more indicative of a style than an origin… There were other symptoms of the style: hair cut short, gelled on top into glistening curls, shorter still on the sides though extending into small, neat sideburns; narrowed and restless eyes, and a piece of chewing gum rapidly battered between molars in a mouth that remained resolutely open as it chewed.”
Freedom Like a Shopping Cart may not be up to par for those who crave genre fiction, but for the rest of us, it’s packed with enough questions to hold our interest long after the book is over. And if that’s not enough, take solace in knowing that the ending leaves potential for a sequel in America… and let me tell you, while Johnston makes no mention of a sequel, I would love to see one!
About the Author
Alex Johnston is a 33-year-old punk-rocking writer from Bristol, England. His favorite book is Catch 22. Alex spent his early twenties working in the hospitality industry and traveling the world. These days he still loves travel and adventure sports, but tries to give as much time as possible to writing, and he is now working on his second book, a novella about unrequited love, due for publication later in 2014.
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