It's amazing what a difference a few years can make. When I was first getting into Stephen King's work, I had no idea where to start. I will never forget finding myself in a small used bookstore in Decatur, Alabama, perusing a bookshelf filled with worn King paperbacks and being shocked that a man could write so much. I picked titles at random, trying to remember what books my friend (a huge King fan at the time) had recommended to me days before this trip to the bookstore, and . . . I really couldn't. I bought, at random, several paperbacks that day -- Different Seasons, IT, Dreamcatcher, Misery, The Running Man.
There was another one I bought, too. That book was Roadwork.
It took me a long time after that day to finally fall in love with the works of Stephen King. I started with The Running Man and got maybe twenty pages in. Ditto with IT. I started Misery before a trip to the gulf and finished it while sitting beach-side. I didn't love it -- I wouldn't read another King novel, Christine, for over a year -- but it planted the seed that soon grew into Constant Reader-dom (is that a word? does that metaphor make sense? ah, well).
In all that time, I never touched Roadwork. I seem to recall reading the brief synopsis on the back of the copy I had and not being too intrigued -- it was something about a man making his "last stand" against a construction company building a highway. Or something. Totally boring, right? At that time, I wanted what everyone wants from King when starting out -- adrenaline-escalating terror! Ghosts! Zombies! Monsters! It wasn't until reading Christine that I finally got what I wanted in that regard and was, thus, sold.
A few months after becoming a full-fledged King fanatic, I took a stab at Roadwork. By that time I had joined the Stephen King Message Board and knew from discussing this book with some folks there that it was pretty different from everything else King has published.
And . . . It was. I got past the first chapter and couldn't take any more; it was dull and plodding, and the main character seemed totally unsympathetic.
Fast-forward four years. Like everyone else, I change from year to year. What I look for in books -- while remaining essentially the same, as in I am just as picky when it comes to good writing -- at twenty is not what I looked for in books at sixteen. My outlook on life has changed, my friends have changed, and I've changed. I'll take strong character development over anything else these days, and Roadwork has that in spades. Bart Dawes -- Roadwork's protagonist -- is up there with Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone as far as fascinating lead characters go. A case could also be made that The Dead Zone and Roadwork are among King's most melancholy works; I wouldn't disagree with that at all. I'd probably throw Christine in that list, too. This period of Stephen King's career is interesting because of how downbeat so much of the output is, but it is in that misery that some of his finest creations come to life.
On the surface, not a whole lot happens in Roadwork. It's about a man who is in charge of finding a new plant for the Blue Ribbon Laundry (readers familiar with Carrie or "The Mangler" probably remember that name), the laundromat he runs. As well, he has to look for a new house for him and his wife -- a new highway is being constructed, and both Dawes's home and work are in the path of the wrecking ball. At the start of the novel he has two months to get this done, but he doesn't do it. He does not feel it's right to be forced to lose his home to the whims of the government -- the house in which he has lived with his wife for twenty years, the house where his son (who died of a brain tumor three years prior to the actions of the novel, putting more strain on Dawes's mental state from the start) took his first steps. The house is full of memories, every nook and cranny -- and Bart Dawes has to find a new place to go. No choice.
And . . . that is really all that happens. Bart eventually loses his job, and his wife leaves him after finding out he never even tried looking for a new house despite telling her otherwise. The point of this story isn't what happens or what doesn't; it's about the tragic figure at the center of it all, and how he's fundamentally changed by forces in his life he cannot control. He begins buying guns and explosives and spending a lot of time in his own thoughts (as narrated by two voices in his head -- Freddy and George, i.e. what he and his son used to call each other). This is a quiet novel, one that doesn't have a lot of action, and I think that is what puts a lot of readers off. A lot of this novel is an excruciatingly detailed look at Bart Dawes's gradual descent into madness by way of all-pervading depression and a sense of self-loathing, so in that way it isn't totally unlike Jack Torrance's situation in The Shining (which King apparently wrote right after completing this novel). However, unlike in The Shining, there are no ghosts or streams of blood here. This one is just about one man standing up for what he thinks is right, no matter the price . . . and sometimes that's the scariest thing a person can do.
In conclusion: this is literary Stephen King with a capital L. I'm amazed that such a nuanced, chilling book came from such a young author (he wrote it in his mid-20s). This is a quiet and sublime study of one of the most tragic figures in all of King's oeuvre. It's a fascinating tale that is, sadly, very overlooked. . . . so overlooked that even I had never read it before now, which is something I deeply regret. This one belongs on the shelf with the best of King's non-genre novels.
King connections: Roadwork is a special case among the original Richard Bachman novels because this one actually has a few connections to the Stephen King universe!
- A lot of the action in the novel's first half takes place at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, employer of Margaret White from Carrie and home of the infamous mangler from the story of the same name, as found in Night Shift.
- At one point Bart tells his wife, Mary, he's "getting back on the beam." Now, I realize this story was written in the mid-70s, before the Dark Tower was such a luminous figure in King's fiction . . . but the story of the Tower had been started by that point (in fact, King started it in 1970), and so I'm counting it as a connection.
- And, finally, Bart meets a mysterious man at a party who describes himself as a traveling, unsettled man. The man calls himself Phil Drake, and mentions a past in the priesthood. He is now a street priest who has renounced his ordination and has a scarred, misshapen hand. He later says he has to pay penance for something -- something he never tells, saying it's between him and God -- and Bart finds in him a kindred spirit. King heavily implies this is Father Callahan from 'Salem's Lot, though it doesn't make much sense as SL takes place in autumn of '75 and Roadwork is set against the backdrop of the First Energy Crisis of 1973. Still, King has said many times over the years that Roadwork was written between 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, so Father Callahan was most definitely on his mind at the time . . . so who knows? Maybe it's Father Callahan's twinner or something.
Up next: A terror that cannot be shaken comes to Castle Rock, Maine, and King can't shake his addictions. It's Cujo.