The only thing more essential to a road trip than an audiobook is gas. I often spend as much time selecting the listening material for a long drive as I do mapping the itinerary, and I’ve seldom made a better choice than LAST CALL: A TRUE STORY OF LOVE, LUST, AND MURDER IN QUEER NEW YORK (Macmillan Audio, 8 hours, 11 minutes), by Elon Green. Recently, my husband and I listened to this true-crime stunner on a drive from North Carolina to New York, and the hours flew by as quickly as the landscape. In 1991, a Pennsylvania Turnpike maintenance worker opened an unusually heavy trash bag and found a mutilated body: “It looked like a loaf of bread,” he recalls, “but then I saw freckles.” The freckles belonged to a gay man, a divorced banker and father who’d last been seen at a Midtown Manhattan piano bar called the Townhouse. Just over a year later, workers emptying trash cans at a rest stop in New Jersey found a bloody bag containing a human head. It belonged to a closeted gay man, a married father of four who had also last been seen at the Townhouse. These were the first known victims of the so-called Last Call Killer, who went on to murder at least two more gay men the next year. The nearly decade-long and sometimes bungled hunt for the serial murderer gives the book its suspense. Green’s sensitive portraits of the victims, and his deeply researched re-creation of an epoch of gay history, provide its soul. Inherently shocking material needs no dramatization, and David Pittu’s understated narration highlights the tragedy and horror of these crimes. “Last Call” is the kind of book that keeps you wide awake all night turning the pages. As an audiobook, it will keep you wide awake all day as you drive, hoping you don’t get wherever you’re going before it ends.
Some people think of audiobooks as secondary counterparts to the original written texts. Seth Rogen’s YEARBOOK (Random House Audio, 6 hours, 13 minutes) proves the exact opposite can be true. Why read these ribald autobiographical essays when you can hit play and hear Rogen himself reading them to you in his hearty baritone? The audiobook also incorporates droll sound effects (flies buzzing around a rotting eggplant in Rogen’s kitchen), and a backup cast that includes his deadpan mother, his friends and a handful of cameos by performers like Snoop Dogg and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Over the course of 22 essays, Rogen’s topics range from Jewish summer camp to his early experiences with stand-up comedy: “I was the worst thing you could be, which was just fine.” There are awkward encounters with other celebrities, like Nicolas Cage (“an odd, magnetizing, confusing man”) and Beyoncé, whose bodyguard once sent him flying for trying to introduce himself. Rogen comes across as a character he might play onscreen: an earthy mensch with a propensity for embarrassing himself. He pees into an empty Snapple bottle outside Tom Cruise’s house only to realize he’s been caught on the driveway security cameras. Bathroom incidents are a motif, as is Rogen’s love of recreational drugs. “As well designed as people are, we just aren’t completely cut out for this world we live in,” he says. “We need shoes, sunblock, exercise, toilet paper — and weed.” His charisma makes Rogen an effective pitchman. Parents be warned: My chief takeaway from “Yearbook” was that I really needed to look into finding myself some shrooms and acid (“no sugar, no carbs”) — and I’m almost old enough to be Rogen’s mother.
Moving from comedy to tragedy, the TV writer, former Rookie editor and author of “Feminist Ryan Gosling” Danielle Henderson knows how to hold your attention. In THE UGLY CRY: A MEMOIR (Penguin Audio, 7 hours, 33 minutes), Henderson describes growing up Black in a mostly white town with her grandmother. Henderson never knew her father, and her mother’s boyfriend terrorized and molested her. Forced to choose between him and her kids, Henderson’s mother chose the boyfriend. She dropped Henderson and her brother off for the weekend at her grandmother’s house and simply didn’t come back. It broke Henderson’s heart and probably saved her life. “I’ve never seen my grandmother bake a cookie, wear a shawl, give good advice or hug a child unprompted,” Henderson tells us. “When I was 9, she casually told me that I should never get married, but I should sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” Grandma’s response when Henderson runs away from a childhood fight: “Shut up, child. … If you don’t go back out there and beat that little girl’s ass, you’re gonna have to come in here and fight me.” A chain-smoking scrapper with a Pillsbury Doughboy laugh, her grandmother loved horror movies, Super Mario Bros., baseball and swearing.