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Gurney Norman
A Profile

Gurney Norman Gurney Norman Gurney Norman

The writer Harry Crews once called all writers “sedentary apes”—people who spend much of their time seated, mimicking other writers they admire. But no one can label Gurney Norman as sedentary. At age 15, he left Hazard, Kentucky to work in a factory near Cincinnati, and other summer jobs followed that often took him away from his mountain home. Later, journeys to Connecticut (where he worked as a babysitter) and Oregon (a year in a fire tower for the Forest Service) and a stint in the military punctuated an early adulthood during which he often crossed paths with the trajectories followed by Wendell, Ed, Jim, and Bobbie Ann.

The usual advice to young writers is to write what you know. And so Gurney’s first major published work was a sort of counterculture travelogue. The novel, Divine Right’s Trip, has been described as a quintessential 1960s road novel, a kind of Grapes of Wrath in reverse.

“I presented him [Divine Right Davenport, the lead character of the book] as a burned-out case,” Gurney explains. “He was exhausted from all of his excesses, and his life was in a shambles, and now he is driving his Volkswagen bus with his girlfriend called Estelle. They’re trying to make a trip from west to east—without a plan; they just know that they need to be on the road headed east. And so the story just follows their adventures, episodically. It’s a picaresque story.”

Gurney not only wrote about the road, he kept traveling it. His passion to reach California led him to make that journey in a 1951 Ford that was anything but road-worthy. In fact, he drove his car in reverse over a portion of the Sierras, one of many adventures into which he has backed:

“I said goodbye and got into my Ford car, which was loaded with my belongings, and started down the Main Street of Hazard. And I got exactly one block and stopped at a light. And when I started to go again—I had it in first gear—the gears just ground and broke.... And I put it up in second gear, and it ran quite well. And I just went on to California. I just drove with two gears, in the spirit of adventure.”

Even though Gurney has settled into a life of teaching at the University of Kentucky and is now married, the trip continues. He hosted several documentaries for KET in the 1980s, on his travels along the Kentucky River, the Wilderness Road, and the Big Sandy Valley, and estimates that he has driven across the country more than 20 times during his life.

“I’m still that way, which is just looking for where interesting experience is,” he says. “And above all, trying not to get boxed in with daily life.”

—Tom Thurman
Photos © copyright James Baker Hall. Used by permission.