Revisiting Roadwork by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
This one is easy, folks.
Because, for ROADWORK, there simply wasn’t a “That Was Then…”
That’s right. ROADWORK is one of two Stephen King novels I had never read before. (And, nope, I’m not going to tell you the other one, but you are all welcome to guess, of course.)
So…why didn’t I read ROADWORK when news first hit many moons ago that Richard Bachman was actually Stephen King? After all, I gobbled up the other Bachman books — THE LONG WALK, RAGE, THE RUNNING MAN, THINNER — and enjoyed them all to varying degrees.
So, what was the deal with ROADWORK?
I promised myself I would remain honest at all times while taking this journey, so my answer here is a simple one: I tried to read ROADWORK. Several times. But it just didn’t take.
There was something about the book’s voice that failed to reach me. Something about the character of George Bart Dawes himself that failed to reach me. And I wasn’t crazy about the storyline of the book either — “A Novel of the First Energy Crisis”? No, thanks.
Was I simply too young or naive to connect with and enjoy the book? Perhaps. But then again King was only 25 years old himself when he wrote the darn thing.
Whatever the reasons, ROADWORK eventually slipped through the cracks for me and was largely forgotten.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
I read ROADWORK in two sittings spread out over the course of sixteen days.
What does that tell us?
Firstly, knocking out 250 pages in just two sittings tells us that ROADWORK is compulsively readable. It’s a good story, and that is first and foremost what I look for in a book these days. Tell me a good story — and I’m yours.
Secondly, it presents a little mystery…why did it take me sixteen days to get back to what was clearly a good novel? Was I really that busy driving my boys around to lacrosse practices and pool parties and the mall? Or were there other factors involved?
If you guessed Door #2, you are correct.
I stopped reading ROADWORK somewhere near the 160 page mark. George Dawes had just vandalized the construction site and soon after found out that his illegal efforts had mostly been for naught; work on the new road would soon continue after only the briefest of delays. It was a tough moment in the novel for George — and for me — a pitch black moment.
So, I put the book down and, to be entirely truthful, wasn’t sure I wanted to pick it up again. I knew what was coming, and I’ll be damned if I wanted to go along for the ride.
But, as Steve often notes in his stories, “curiosity killed the cat,” and ROADWORK eventually found its way back into my hands.
I picked it up again one evening after dinner and finished it in a late night fervor. I was glad for the experience — and even more glad to be rid of it.
ROADWORK is a good story, a good book.
It’s also a white-hot angry book. And it doesn’t take us long to figure that out, as we witness George’s anger and frustration on page one when he tells a local reporter exactly what he thinks about the new highway project that so many others are celebrating.
We soon find out that the projected path of this new road will cost George his longtime home, the house he raised his young son in before the boy tragically died of cancer at the age of three. And if that’s not bad enough, the new road will also cost George his work building, an industrial laundromat.
Sure, George and his wife can find a new home; they are being well compensated for their loss. And the business can find a new home, too; in fact, George is in charge of closing the real estate deal for the relocation of the laundromat.
But it won’t be the same, and George knows it.
It’s maybe all he knows as he enters a gun shop in the opening pages of the novel and purchases several guns and more ammunition than any sane man needs…all without even realizing why he is doing so.
It’s the first sign that George is slipping…but there are many more to come. We turn the pages and witness act after terrifying act — George lying to those closest to him, trying to buy explosives, picking up strangers on the roadside and taking them home with him — all signifying the slow and painful decay of a good man’s mind and soul.
But even that’s not enough; King doesn’t merely show us George’s spiral into madness, he forces us to listen to George’s innermost thoughts as he takes us on this journey.
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? Part of his mind would go dark. Hey Georgie, who turned out the lights? Whoops, I did. Something screwy in the wiring, I guess. Just a sec. Reset the switch. The lights go back on. But the thought is gone. Everything is fine. Let us continue, Freddy–where were we?
For me, this is the key to ROADWORK’s powerful engine and also a pretty clear explanation as to why I didn’t much like the novel the first few times I first picked it up. I found it maddening and unnerving to be privy to so many of George’s thoughts, especially when every single one of them is hurtling us toward such a dark and hopeless destination.
That’s not exactly what an early 20’s Richard Chizmar was looking for in a drugstore paperback purchase. Vampires and serial killers and haunted houses, yes. A good man being royally screwed over by the system and fighting back…only to lose everything. Nope.
ROADWORK is a rage-filled spiderweb of a book. There isn’t a bright side. There isn’t a reprieve.
Even King himself in his introduction to THE BACHMAN BOOKS stated: “I think it was an effort to make sense of my mother’s painful death a year before — a lingering cancer had taken her off inch by painful inch. Following this death I was left both grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of it all… ROADWORK tries so hard to be good and find some answers to the conundrum of human pain.”
That ROADWORK tries a little too hard to be a good and serious novel is indisputable. But it’s also clearly apparent that ROADWORK is a novel of real emotional depth and personal pain. For this reader, maybe even a little too personal at times.
* * *
When George walks into Harvey’s Gun Shop at the beginning of the book; when George lies to Mary’s face about the house he has found for them; when George lies to his boss Steve Ordner’s face about the pending real estate deal.
All terrifying signs of what is yet to come.
Maybe a cheat because I named several different scenes, but as I mentioned above, they all come early on in the novel and each represents a significant link in George’s spiraling mental instability.
I know it shouldn’t be my favorite scene, I know it’s not right…but here you go:
An arm of fire ran out of the cab, reached the engine hood, paused for a moment as if in reflection, and then sniffed inside. This time the explosion was not soft. KAPLOOM! And suddenly the cowling was in the air, rising almost out of sight, fluttering and turning over and over. Something whizzed past his head.
It’s burning, he thought. It’s really burning!
He began to do a shuffling dance in the fiery darkness, his face contorted in an ecstasy so great that it seemed his features must shatter and fall in a million smiling pieces. His hands curled into waving fists above his head.
“Hooray!” He screamed into the wind, and the wind screamed back at him, “Hooray goddam it hooray!”
It’s madness — and it’s wrong. I know that. But I couldn’t stop cheering for this sad man in his only moment of true happiness in the entire book. I could smell the gasoline in the air and feel the cold of the snow on my boots and the warmth of the fire on my face, and I could feel his heart soaring in his chest. I was there with him. A willing accomplice.
And, soon after, when he discovers that the firebombing of the construction equipment will only cause the briefest of delays to the project, I’m there again, feeling his pain and crushing disappointment.
And the joy is gone.
ROADWORK’s opening line:
But Viet Nam was over and the country was getting on.
Very simply, vintage early Stephen King.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
When we first meet the young reporter, Dave Albert, he is conducting man-on-the-street interviews at the official groundbreaking of the new highway. When he asks George his opinion of the highway extension, George responds, “I think it’s a piece of shit.” This occurs during the book’s prologue.
When we meet him again, Albert is standing in George’s bullet hole-riddled living room interviewing George and taking down notes in a notebook a short time before the big BOOM of the book’s climax. The two men don’t remember each other.
“Come on, Mr. Dawes. Come on out. I’ll see that your side gets told. I’ll see–“
“There is no side.”
Albert frowned. “What was that?”
“I have no side. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Powerful. Haunting. Utterly hopeless.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Let’s see, a few good choices for this one:
George is gone, but how about his wife, Mary Dawes? Nah, too boring. I think she went back to school as planned. Got remarried to a balding insurance agent from a nearby town. Lived out her life in a nice middle-class house in a nice middle-class neighborhood. Far far away from the new highway.
How about Sal Magliore, the local car salesman/mobster? Talk about a colorful character; I really dug this guy. Especially loved listening to him talk. I figure Sal probably got up to a lot of no-good in the years that followed.
But I think my pick goes to Olivia Brenner, the pretty, twenty-one-year old hitchhiker who spent a memorable night with George before continuing on to Las Vegas. I think (hope) the future had kind things in store for this young lady, and I’d like to see what happened.
START DATE – May 3, 2015
FINISH DATE – May 19, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.