In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Richard Bachman’s lesser-known novel, Roadwork
Stephen King isn’t your run-of-the-mill horror writer. Indeed, he resists the generic label – ‘generic’ both because it identifies him with one genre but also because it is blandly general and nondescript – and might be better seen as a ‘writer’ full-stop. Or rather, as a storyteller, for at his best he uses good old-fashioned character-driven storytelling to explore dark themes and ideas. And nowhere do we see this more clearly, perhaps, than in Stephen King’s ‘non-Stephen-King’ novels – that is, his Bachman books.
King published four early novels under the name Richard Bachman, before his fifth outing under the pseudonym, Thinner, led to his cover being blown when a journalist noted the stylistic similarities between ‘Stephen King’ and ‘Richard Bachman’. (One reviewer of Thinner, unaware that Bachman was really Stephen King, remarked that it was ‘what Stephen King would write if Stephen King could write’. Which may be my favourite example of literary irony.) The four early books were collected in the bumper omnibus edition The Bachman Books: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man. Rage occupies a peculiar place in King’s canon because it is now out of print because of its association with several real-life high-school shootings; The Long Walk is a fascinating precursor to The Hunger Games, with a film adaptation apparently in the offing; and The Running Man is familiar to many people who haven’t read the novel thanks to the (very different) film adaptation with Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Roadwork remains the outlier, the neglected volume, the little-known title. It doesn’t have a young-adult focus like the infamous Rage or the notable (and remarkable) The Long Walk. It didn’t get made into a film with the Governator. Roadwork is a forgotten work.
This is not altogether undeserved. King himself once thought it the worst of the early Bachmans, although he later changed his mind and declared it his favourite – perhaps because of the personal pain out of which the novel sprang. His mother had died of cancer just one year before it was written. Of the four early Richard Bachman books, it’s the least successful: a novella or long short story spun out into a 300-page novel. The protagonist, Barton George Dawes, isn’t quite captivating enough to become the beating heart of a novel that is essentially a vehicle for his personal grief and his anger and frustration. There are some nice moments – the scenes involving Olivia, the hitchhiker whom Dawes takes into his house and helps out financially when she moves on to Las Vegas, are touching and well executed – but there are too many longueurs.
Roadwork is a revenge novel, and revenge is one of the most primal and successful narrative devices. It’s about one man, Barton George Dawes, taking revenge on the authorities for ruthlessly mowing down his family home and place of work in order to build a new interstate highway. Dawes is standing in the way of progress: all of his neighbours have caved in and been bought off, evacuating their own homes and moving elsewhere. But Dawes, still grieving for the death of his young son Charlie, who died several years before of an inoperable brain tumour, refuses to cave in – even when his wife has walked out on him and he has lost his job at the industrial laundry. He is taking a stand: a last stand. He buys guns and explosives from a mobster so he can exact his revenge, blowing the new road sky high.
Roadwork is not an easy novel to read, partly because Dawes is not made an especially sympathetic character. Not because we cannot identify with his pain and his rage, but because his slide into lawlessness remains solely motivated by these two relatable tragedies – the death of his son and the plans to build a new road through his home – and yet it takes him so long to act. I wished either for swifter action from Dawes or more plot developments that would trigger his decline. Instead, he largely plans to do something for several hundred pages before he actually does anything.
Is Roadwork a failure? Not at all. But then Stephen King is an author who sets the bar high regarding storytelling. In his best work – both his novels and his shorter fiction – he effectively weaves together traditional storytelling with significant ideas and themes. But in Roadwork, the themes are in the driving seat: the need for a good story is present, but it is, at best, a passenger. Aptly, The Long Walk, a novel set entirely on one long stretch of road, goes places. But Roadwork, about a new road being built and destroying the life of a man trapped in his own past, itself becomes stuck in roadblocks of its own making. Thankfully, it is also a Stephen King novel, and so is still hugely enjoyable – but it’s not one that King’s readers are necessarily going to revisit in a hurry.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.