Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Devouring Stephen King (as Richard Bachman): Roadwork

I'm rarely surprised when a Stephen King book being good, but after the last two Richard Bachman books I read (Rage and The Long Walk) were found wanting somewhat, I didn't really have high expectations for Roadwork. This was a bit of a mistake, as it turned out, because Roadwork was, without a doubt, my favourite Richard Bachman book so far (and, I'm not afraid to say, better than a few Stephen King books as well). I'm not sure if this is an indication of King's growing talent as a writer, or just my love of the subject matter, but either way, this was a really good read. Such a good read, in fact, that I read the bulk of it in one evening. Oh yes.

So, the basic premise of this book is that this guy, Barton Dawes, stands alone against the great gods of road construction, resisting the building of a highway that is going to destroy his place of work, his home, and, so he believes, everything that he has been for the past twenty years. Stated like this, his reluctance to move is pretty understandable, but actually Bart has a lot of other things going on. Slowly it becomes clear to us that his son had died a few years earlier, the building of the road, in Bart's mind, destroying everything about his child's life; and all these things combined mean that Bart is ever so slightly cracking up. As part of this, Bart has lost all perspective- instead of seeing moving as a brand new start, he sees it as the absolute worst thing that could happen to him, the loss of the familiar things around him somehow, I suspect, correlating with the loss of his sanity.

I can't even tell you how much I wanted to yell at him 'IT'S JUST STUFF!' a la Lester Burnham, when he was lamenting the loss of his house and his office and things, especially since he lets his marriage fall apart while clinging onto the things that seem to matter more to him, like bricks and mortar and the past. But then, when I thought about it a bit more, I realised that, really, a house is more than just physical things, it's a home- made up of memories that, I guess, you feel like you're letting go of if you are away from the physical triggers for them. At the crux of why Bart can't give up the house, then, is his son's death and his inability to cope with its fact- emotionally crippled since it happened, letting go of the house is like losing his son all over again, only this time for good because he won't even have the memories of him. Looking at Bart in this way, then, it is a lot easier to understand what looks like materialism actually being a form of mourning.

Like the other Bachman books I've read, Roadwork is not at all focused on evil monsters or malignant forces on the world (unless you count evil businesses ruining people's lives), but more on the demons that live inside each of us. This can sometimes be scarier than the actual monsters, and I think Bart would tell you a thing or two about that- the journey that we are invited to embark upon into his head is not an a tame one, and it's difficult to consider whether I'd rather face myself (who I can't get away from) or a demonic clown (who I just have to kill and then everything will be fine!) It's scary in a different way, but it still looks on the darker side of life, into the realms of people's minds and their neuroses. Unchartered, and very intimidating territory.

To say much more would be to give away massive plot points (although the whole gist of it is 'man doesn't like road, goes a bit mental' but, you know, better than just that) but there is an encounter with a hitchhiker that presented me, at least, with possibly the most memorable moments from a really impressive book. Firstly, he discusses with her the reasons why he hates the road, stating that it's just something that he can't agree to, and can't let happen to him. This interchange occurs:
" 'You're either really crazy or really remarkable,' she said.
'People are only remarkable in books' he said." 
This just makes the book a tiny bit meta (the character realising his own nature and stuff) but is also an admission of his own madness, something which he is reluctant to admit out loud to anyone in the rest of the book. The fact that he does so offers some promising insight into whether or not he can escape his depression (or depression plus...) and the realisation that we really want him to. The other exchange comes on Christmas day, as he tries to convince her, as a good father would (child replacement, anyone?) that she needs to stick out what she's doing and not give up as easily as she has been doing her entire life. He thus passes on his sage, albeit depressing, wisdom:
"'No, no, you listen. Dig your ears out. Getting old is like driving through snow that just gets deeper and deeper. When you finally get in over your hubcaps, you just spin and spin. That's life. There are no plows to come and dig you out. Your ship isn't going to come in, girl. There are no boats for nobody. You're never going to win a contest. There's no camera following you and people watching you struggle. This is it. All of it. Everything.'" 
Have you ever heard a better  'pull your socks up' speech? Because I'm not sure I have. Just when some people might have written off the Bachman books as not good enough to bear the King name (ahem), he goes and knocks it out of the park with wisdom like that, and with the entire book in general. Just awesome, awesome stuff.

As you may probably have been able to tell, I really liked this book. I just read on wikipedia that King wrote it when he was trying to come to terms with his mother's death, and originally he was really disappointed with it. Fortunately, he saw sense, and perhaps his own genius, and now sees it as his favourite of the early books. I'm finding it really difficult to disagree with him.

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