“Okay Mr. King, I’d like you to count backward for me, down from one hundred. Relax. Focus on the sound of my voice. Nothing can hurt you here. This is a safe place. Tell me about the Richard Bachman fellow. Is he here right now? In the room with us?”
I purposely haven’t read the essays by the other authors in this book. I wanted to approach this with a clean slate, no preconceived notions, no roadmap. Most likely, that means I’m doing it all wrong. If I am, I apologize for that. I’ve never been good at following directions. After (God, has it really been) forty-plus years of reading King and Bachman, I get the distinct feeling that King tends to follow most directions in life while Bachman is more likely to scoff when someone tells him what to do, take their suggestions under advisement, then do whatever the hell he wanted to do before that someone rudely interrupted him.
We all have that inner voice, the devil camped out on our shoulder whispering in our ear. The difference here is King made a conscious decision to grant his life, set him free. He handed him a Black Beauty pencil and pad, pointed at an armchair across the room, and said, “You do your thing, and I’ll be over here doing mine. Curious to see what you come up with.”
The weekend psychologist in me has often wondered how exactly that worked, but it did. And the odd thing is, there are distinct differences between the two. Voice, cadence, sentence structure…the stories themselves. Bachman will say things King wouldn’t dare. Those differences grew over the years. In many ways, this is a testament to King’s ability to tell a story, to create a character. Bachman started as an idea on the page and eventually became someone else living in the house. I can see the two of them fighting over the remote, because they wouldn’t want to watch the same thing. Tabitha is probably the real hero of the story. She somehow managed to keep them both in line.
As an author, I get it. The moment you write a book, everyone wants to tag you with a label and stuff you into the appropriate genre box. Heaven forbid you write fast and gum up the publisher’s production line with too many titles. Using a pseudonym granted King the ability to skirt both those problems. He’s also used John Swithen and Beryl Evans. Although the two of them were more like passing acquaintances, while Bachman was akin to that old friend who popped up every few years, crashed on the couch for a bit, then vanished again after leaving a note on the coffee table with a few bucks to cover groceries.
Just as the members of a successful band sometimes do side projects, Bachman, I imagine, was also a much-needed outlet. King’s books were successful right out of the gate. Bachman’s got relegated to the back of the rack, and that kind of anonymity offers a lot of freedom.
I’ve had Roadwork up on the shelf for some time. I’ve got a first edition paperback with Bachman on the cover, no mention of King. I do remember knowing King wrote it when I bought it, so I imagine I picked it up sometime around 1985, most likely at the long defunct used bookstore in Englewood, Florida. I would have been fourteen at the time, having just moved to the sunshine state from Illinois. I finished reading it on 2/10/1986, again on 10/19/2009, and most recently on 3/20/2020. I know this, because anytime I read a book, I sign and date it in the back—a habit I started back when I was ten after finding a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at a garage sale with signatures and dates on the last page going back almost a hundred years. When I first saw that, it made me realize how books live a quiet life of their own—read, borrowed, sold, given—most will outlive us. The book you’re reading right now is only visiting. Where will it go when you’re done? Up on a shelf? Off into the world? Or will it vanish with the flick of a power switch? I guess that’s up to you, but if it’s a physical copy and someone picks it up a century from now, wouldn’t it be cool if they saw your signature and date?
Roadwork is about a man named Barton George Dawes, who learns a highway extension is about to be built in his backyard, literally. His house will be demolished. His neighbors’ homes. Even the laundromat where he works is on the chopping block. Someone else’s idea of progress is set to dismantle his life. Bart doesn’t take the news well. He’s compensated financially for the house but doesn’t buy a replacement. He’s tasked with finding a new location for the laundromat but lets the deal fall apart. When his wife learns about the numerous balls he’s dropped, she leaves him. Bart is not in a good place, and led by his anger, begins exploring ways to put an end to the construction project, with very little consideration of what that means for him.
The story struck home with me for a silly reason. Several years before, back in Illinois, my friends and I considered a real-life plot similar to the one in the book. My parents had bought a forest and built our family home in the middle when I was still in diapers. That forest was our childhood playground for the years that followed—riding ATVs, playing capture the flag, hide and seek—everything we did took place in those woods. Around the time I was thirteen, my friends and I learned that someone bought the sod farm next door to our forest and planned to build a shopping mall there. That night at dinner, my parents told my sister and me the same company made them an offer on the forest, and they planned to accept. Our world came apart. For the weeks that followed, every kid in the neighborhood had a singular thought—how do we stop this from happening? There were talks of dynamite, sabotage. We even considered telling people the forest was built on an old Indian graveyard, land that had to be preserved. That was probably our best idea. None of it played out, though. Kids don’t have access to dynamite. Sabotage is scary. And when children tell stories of old, haunted burial grounds, adults shrug it off and refer back to these crazy things called “town records” that held no mention of such a thing.
The sod farm sold.
My parents’ land sold.
Our house sold, and we made the move to Florida.
They broke ground on the shopping mall about the same time I found Roadwork in that old bookstore and read the jacket copy. So the first time I met Barton George Dawes, I think I related to him in a roundabout way. I understood his frustration and anger. My shopping mall was his road, and my teenage brain wanted to see him succeed. This was a time when Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the box office and the A-Team dominated television. Problems were solved with explosions and gunshots. Shouldn’t Bart be allowed his revenge? Damn right, he should.
What would Rambo do?
Ah, the eighties.
I’ve always liked the way books take on different meanings if you read them at different times in your life. That’s all I really remember from that early read. Bart’s drive, the action stuff. I remember him being horribly pissed off, trying to do something about it, and failing miserably.
I wouldn’t pluck it down off the bookshelf again until I was thirty-eight and fast approaching my first midlife crisis (yes, you can have more than one). I was trapped in a job I hated (I really wanted to be a writer), a marriage slowly moving toward the finish line (she didn’t understand why I wanted to write when I had a real job), and my father had recently passed away with cancer.
I’ve always read a lot, and a handful of books had made my shortlist of repeat-worthy:
All the classics—Dickens, Golding, Orwell, Brontë, Stoker, Twain, Austen, Vonnegut, Bradbury…
Anything by Thomas Harris.
Anything by Stephen King.
Life’s too short to read a bad book, but there’s certainly enough time to go back and revisit the good ones a couple times. For every three or four new books I read, I’ll go back and pull one of the above down and give it another look. In October 2009, Roadwork was back on deck, and I nearly missed it. It’s a small paperback and was tucked in with the B’s rather than the several shelves of King books I’d accumulated at that point. I’d completely forgotten about it. It’s not one of his bestsellers. I’m not sure it was even a mediocre seller. I barely remembered the story, and I think that’s what compelled me to give it another go.
About twenty pages in, I remember thinking, This is King, but it isn’t. His innate ability to develop a character in only a handful of sentences was there. The inner thoughts and structure that completely hooked me in Gerald’s Game were there, too. But this didn’t feel like a King book. There was no supernatural element. He used the phrase “a long second,” the bastard cousin of “a long moment,” something he’s complained about on Twitter when found in other books. There was horror, but this particular horror had a strange sense of realness to it. One I found unnerving. Unlike most King books, this story could happen. Easily. I personally find that far more frightening than some of the other night-bumpers he’s created over the years. Bart was a monster. Bart could be living right across the street. Bart might be ahead of you in line at the supermarket. Behind you at the gas pump. This world is filled with Barts—we’ve seen them in the headlines on the regular.
When my younger self read this book the first time, it was the action that grabbed me. This time, twenty-some years later, it was that human element. Bart was in a bad place. He went dark, and then he only got worse. His high school yearbook said he was the class clown, but life had thrown one horrible event at him after another, and this rapid fire of suffering changed him, beat him down. You can feel the pain in his thoughts, his every action. Again, I related to Bart, not because of what he wanted to do but because of what he had been through.
I later learned King lost his mother to cancer around the same time he wrote this book, and while my younger self wouldn’t have noticed the influence of something like that in an author’s work, there was no denying it here. Bart bled for him. When I closed the cover on that second read, I thought about the loss of my father a lot. I missed him. On that second read, I found myself wondering about Olivia, too. The young girl who spends a night with Bart before thumbing her way to Nevada in search of something better. I didn’t remember her from my first read, but by this time in my life, I had known my share of Olivias. I’d seen girls just like her get on a bus all bright-eyed, only to return years later with the sheen gone. I can’t help but wonder if she ever came back and learned just what Bart did.
Fast-forward to 2020. I received an e-mail from Brian Freeman of Cemetery Dance, asking if I’d like to read Roadwork and contribute an essay to Stephen King Revisited. For the third time in my life, I reached for that tattered paperback and settled into a comfortable chair. Much had changed in my own life since my last read—I met and married the most incredible woman. I write full time now. And we have a little girl. Again, I had changed. While the book itself was comfortingly familiar, one particular scene jumped out at me, one I didn’t recall from my first two visits with Barton George Dawes. He goes up into the attic of his soon-to-be demolished home and opens a box of his son’s clothing, sifts through the contents. His son, Charlie, had died of a brain tumor.
I nearly closed the book at that point and put it away.
I could hear my own little girl laughing with her mother in the other room, and just the thought of losing a child was too much. It wasn’t something I wanted in my head. Not ever.
My younger (non-parent) self had glossed right over this scene, not once but twice.
That is the magic of a good book.
While the words don’t change, the meaning, their impact, might. It’s one of the main reasons I revisit the good ones.
Roadwork is dark. It’s unforgiving.
It’s one of the good ones.
If your reading of King has been limited to the big hitters, pick this one up and give it a shot. You’ll find hints of the author he’d later become, but more importantly, you’ll see where he came from. This is Springsteen before the Nebraska album, and every note hits home.
The complete list of the books to be read 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.
J.D. Barker is an international bestselling American author whose work has been broadly described as suspense thrillers, often incorporating elements of horror, crime, mystery, science fiction, and the supernatural. Find him on the web at jdbarker.com