Roadwork (1981)

(writing as Richard Bachman, collected in The Bachman Books)

Roadwork, my least favourite of the novels in The Bachman Books, is a rather over-earnest examination of repressed grief. Set against the backdrop of the US energy crisis of the 1970s, the plot follows Barton George Dawes, a 40-year-old man, as his life falls apart over the course of a 3-month period. A new highway extension means that both his home and his workplace are due for demolition. The amusingly clunky tagline on the cover above pretty much tells you the rest (Actually, it doesn't. Spoilers! What it does tell you is what happens about 15 pages from the end, making it a double failure - it sells the book as a tense siege book, when it really isn't, while simultaneously removing any doubt about where we're going to end up. Such an odd choice. But I digress).

Near the beginning of the novel, we find Bart buying two guns - a .44 Magnum and a heavy calibre rifle - for reasons he can't really explain. In King's words, "He kept doing things without letting himself think about them. Safer that way. It was like having a circuit breaker in his head, and it thumped into place every time part of him tried to ask: But why are you doing this?" I'll return to this conceit later, because it's central to why I find Roadwork unsatisfying. For now, let's concentrate on the basics of the plot.

Spoilers ahead! Bart is supposed to be overseeing the procurement of a new site for the Blue Ribbon Laundry, his employer for many years. He's also supposed to be finding a new home that he and his wife, Mary, can move to. Instead of doing either of these things, he's doing neither - which involves an increasingly elaborate framework of lies as the dates of these compulsory purchases approach. For reasons we will come to shortly, Bart is in denial. He therefore lets the 90-day option on the new plant expire, resigning when it becomes clear that he's doomed the company to collapse. His colleagues think he's lost his mind, and it's not long before his wife learns that he's made no effort on the home front. She leaves him, and his world falls to pieces.

This first third of the book has much to recommend it, as King slowly explores Bart's character, and the logic (or otherwise) behind his increasingly erratic decisions. His wilful inability to do the things he must is well captured, and speaks to the stubbornness of depression - he knows he's throwing everything away, but can't or won't help himself. Similarly, his emotional state shows that something's wrong, even before we understand what it is. As we gradually come to learn, his son, Charlie, died of a brain tumour 3 years before, and Bart has never recovered. His inability to account for his actions to any of the people he's letting down smacks of self-deception, as it's clear that he can't face the idea of losing either building, due to their prominence and (up until now) permanence in his life - they are his links to his previous happy life. As the lies build up, and his rage and sorrow begin to undo him, King presents us with a strong piece of car-crash fiction.

The second part of Roadwork finds Bart spiralling into loneliness and drink. He spends his days driving miles on the turnpike, checking on the remorseless progress of the 784 extension every evening, feeding his obsession. He's aimless, wandering, and at times the novel itself seems to have lost its way, too. Repeated conversations with his estranged wife show her drifting further and further out of reach. Bart does a lot of reminiscing and weeping. He gets into a fight with a former laundry employee. And all the while the same questions we've been faced with for the whole book are repeated with (eventually) exhausting regularity: why is he doing this? Is this a final capitulation to some destructive impulse that was there all along? He doesn't know how to proceed, he's keeping his options open, and so on. With a little more editing, this would perhaps be less of an issue, because there are good points here, too. An episode in which he picks up a young hitcher, Olivia, gives him a stranger to whom he is finally able to open up - a welcome glimmer of honesty. Her gift of high-grade mescaline prompts a skilfully delivered sequence which pushes Mary away and makes him reconsider his course of action. However, the story suddenly comes alive when he finally acts.

Major spoilers ahead! One of the subplots of the novel features Bart's interaction with Salvatore 'One-Eye' Magliore, who (in case the name wasn't clue enough) is a shady mafia type. Thankfully he's less of a caricature than Richie 'The Hammer' Ginelli from Thinner, but he serves the same purpose - to drive the action forward. His initial refusal to help leads Bart to petrol-bomb the building site and its vehicles on his own, and the sequence is textbook King: Bart's amateur assault on the road, in the middle of a snow storm, is thrilling and brisk. It's a welcome change of pace. Magliore's later change of heart leads to the siege-based finale, in which Bart rigs his cherished house with explosives, settles in with his guns and waits for the council lawyers to come and take possession of the building. Here, King throws in an interesting stylistic flourish, a chapter of unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness 'stoptime', in which Bart makes his last (and arguably only) major decision. Holding out long enough to attract the attention of the media, he finally takes his stand and detonates the house, bringing his misery to an end. Again, this is another taut sequence, the action rocketing along.

As I suggested at the start of this review, I think my problem with Roadwork stems from King's decision to make Bart so passive - from the beginning, he emphasises that Bart is acting almost unconsciously. He drifts through the novel, unable to comprehend why he's acting the way he does. This is drilled into us throughout - he buys guns, but doesn't know why; he makes Molotov cocktails, but doesn't know why. He's rarely in control, which makes sense given that he's obviously acting out of repressed guilt and grief over the death of his son - he just can't function. As King explains in his introduction to The Bachman Books collection, the story was written in response to the death of his mother, and the representation of grief is well observed and feels honest. But in taking away Bart's conscious motivation and having him wallow in self-pity for so much of the book, he also robs much of the story of momentum - leaving us instead (in my opinion) with an increasingly unsympathetic protagonist whose eventual stand is clearly signposted a long way off.

Perhaps Roadwork would have worked better as a shorter piece. After all, it's perfectly readable, the characters are well drawn and, as I've said, there are sequences that shine through the measured (even laborious) whole. But then again, perhaps it does exactly what King intended, and I've either missed or misinterpreted the point. As a character study of a man cracking under the pressure of despair, I'll admit that it succeeds. But as a story? Not one of my favourites, I'm afraid.

Next: Danse Macabre.

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