Author: Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
Release Date: 1981
Warning, this is one of those books I can’t complain about without also spoiling the ending. Spoilers marked accordingly below.
I had a feeling of déjà vu while reading Roadwork by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman). Following on the heels of The Rage, The Shining and even The Long Walk, King has now told multiple books about seemingly sane characters snapping and losing all appreciation for right or wrong, life or death. In this story, Barton George Dawes is forced to come to grips with a highway expansion that will require him to sell his home and relocate his employer. From the beginning of the story it’s clear that Dawes is lying either to himself or to everybody else. After buying some powerful firearms, he concocts a story that will cause the laundry corporation that he works for to miss out on the new property that it has an option on. The result will force the company to go out of business, but have little practical effect on the corporation that owns it.
If that sounds like a stupid plan, it’s because it is. Similarly to the main character in (the terrible) The Rage, here the protagonist frequently makes decisions that will cause hardships on other characters with no care for that effect on their situation. Whereas the shooter in The Rage actually killed people, Dawes actions are more in line with ruining his wife’s and coworkers’ finances. (There is a ridiculous statement about his coworkers having unemployment coverage that will take care of them better than the laundry ever could, but it only underscores how little Dawes cares for these people or understands their situations.) As the book progresses, Dawes tries to simultaneously thwart the city’s highway expansion, while also weigh the moral implications of his actions.
I’m starting to pick up on a trend that the Bachman books are supposed to be bleak. Through the first three, only The Long Walk has been what could be described as an enjoyable read. However the problem is not in the dark subject matter of the stories but instead in the execution. **Spoilers follow for the ending of the book** Dawes solution at the end is to blow up his house (with him in it) before a televised news crew. The way he makes sure a news crew is present is to shoot at the lawyer and police officers he told could come take possession of his house when they arrive. This book takes place in the 1970’s, so I think calling in a tip to the news station could have had the same desired outcome. Although it doesn’t appear he kills any of civil servants, he shoots at least one in the arm with a Magnum (the book points out repeatedly how powerful the firearms he has chosen are). Apparently we are to overlook or empathize with Dawes because he lost a child several years back.
This book may have been a better read if told through the perspective of Mary (Dawes wife) or if he actually spent any time sympathizing with her. While they both lost a son, Mary’s pain is overlooked because of how much their son was “George’s boy.” When she loses everything and is forced to move in with her parents, Dawes solution is to split the money he received for surrendering the house with her as well as their bank account, and then give the rest to a hitchhiker he slept with shortly after they split up. It is obvious King wants readers to either sympathize with Dawes or forgive some of his actions, but he never gives reasons to do so. If his intent was to just tell a story about a selfish man who decides to kill himself, then he should have made it more entertaining than what is present in Roadwork. In various introductions to the Bachman books, King expresses disappointment in this story but says it gives readers a window into his mind at the time of publication and later calls it his favorite Bachman book. Although both statements can be true, I would only concur with his initial evaluation.
The only positives I can say about this book involve a few entertaining scenes that had me optimistic King’s story would develop into something better. Early on when Dawes is coming up with stories to fool a gun seller (for no real reason) and later Dawes’s supervisor (in order to make them lose their option on the property), I was eager to find out what the end game he had in mind was. Instead for 300+ pages, Dawes has no idea what he is going to do and we are dragged along. This included numerous pages of Dawes moping around his house and a trip on mescaline that seemed out of place with the rest of the book. While I’m only giving this one star, I will say that on the scale of one star books this is much closer to two stars than zero stars (which Goodreads doesn’t allow) and was much better than The Rage.