Roadwork * Stephen King short story

Only Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman, can imagine the horror of a good and angry man who fights back against bureaucracy when it threatens to destroy his vitality, home, and memories.

It reminded me a lot of The Running Man where the guy sticks it to the system grand style and goes down in flames.  Rather than being a continuously moving story about a collection of things happening to people, Roadwork is essentially an examination of the destruction of one man. And let me tell you, that character examination is SUBLIME. The only character that I have read in a King work who was clearly better defined was Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone, and this book would best be compared to that earlier work.
There is very little to be bored with in this book if you’re not worried about things always happening. If you are, you might be better advised to move on and leave this one alone–there aren’t a lot of bodies or explosions. The atmosphere and characterization, however, are superb. I read this as part of the Bachman Books, which have regrettably been taken off the market as a set, and I was impressed by the depth and expression that King managed in this side-project (not reflected in his other work under the pseudonym).

Roadwork by Stephen King is a tragic tale about a man named Barton George Dawes and the curve ball the government throws into his ordinary and organized life. Barton and his wife Mary live at 1241 Crestallen Street West and have done so for what seems to Barton to have been forever. All of their memories, carefully constructed, and then just as carefully put away after Charlie died, are tied to this house. Looking around, Bart is reminded of Charlie every where he looks, and even though three years have passed since his young death, it still feels like yesterday. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that Bart is unable to move, and unwilling to be pushed out.

One of the lovely mini-stories I loved was how Bart and Mary got their first TV – to outclass the other family in their neighbourhood who had one. They even had to collect bottle caps off the highway to make the final payment.

Barton and Mary are given a year’s notice when the plans for the highway extension are first announced. As part of the Eminent Domain clause, the government has the right to insist, and Bart and Mary are told they have no choice but to find another place to live. It grates on Bart. In fact, something in him revolts against the whole idea.

You can’t always understand something just because you did it

The months pass quickly, and before Bart and Mary know it, the month is November. In January they have to be out, and despite the date closing in, they still they have nowhere to live. Mary is getting nervous. She reminds Bart, but reminders are the last thing he needs. Bart is on the edge. On the outside, he functions relatively normally for the most part. He goes to work each day, and his routine is simple. Despite his seeming lack of direction though, on some level Bart is making plans. Unfortunately, the plans are not to move, and they do not include Mary. It isn’t a conscious decision that Bart makes. It is as though a part of him operates entirely of it’s own volition, and lately Bart is very good at separating himself from himself.

He rolled and thrashed in his bed, waiting for the dancing blue shadows to come in his window, waiting for the heavy knock on his door, waiting for some bodyless, Kafkaesque voice to call: Okay, open up in there! And when he finally fell asleep he did it without knowing it, because thought continued without a break, shifting from conscious rumination to the skewed world of dreams with hardly a break, like a car going from drive to low. Even in his dreams he thought he was awake, and in his dreams he committed suicide over and over: burned himself; bludgeoned himself by standing under an anvil and pulling a rope; hanged himself; blew out the stove’s pilot lights and then turned on the oven and all four burners; shot himself; defenestrated himself; stepped in front of a moving Greyhound bus; swallowed pills; swallowed Vanish toilet bowl disinfectant; stuck a can of Glade Pine Fresh aerosol in his mouth, pushed the button, and inhaled until his head floated off into the sky like a child’s balloon; committed hara-kiri while kneeling in a confessional at St. Dom’s, confessing his self-murder to a dumbfounded young priest even as his guts accordioned out onto the bench like beef stew, performing an act of contrition in a fading, bemused voice as he lay in his blood and the steaming sausages of his intestines. But most vividly, over and over, he saw himself behind the wheel of the LTD, racing the engine a little in the closed garage, taking deep breaths and leafing through a copy of National Geographic, examining pictures of life in Tahiti and Aukland and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, turning the pages ever more slowly, until the sound of the engine faded to a faraway sweet hum and the green waters of the South Pacific inundated him in rocking warmth and took him down to a silver fathom.

Instead of looking for a place to live, Bart secretly buys weapons, forces early retirement on himself by causing the closure of the Blue Ribbon Laundry, making absolutely no plans to move. Causing the end of his job also brings the end of his marriage, as Mary is unable to sit by and watch Bart self destruct. When she leaves, Bart slips further still. He manages to buy explosives, and when the twentieth of January finally comes, Bart is ready. He is calm, organized, but definitely not moving. Instead, he takes a stand against Eminent Domain laws. Bart decides that he will dig in, feeling like he must, convincing himself that there are no viable alternatives. At the last moment he refuses to leave, bringing media into the situation and drawing as much attention to his predicament as he can before he completes the construction crews demolition plans for them. A steady read that has the reader rooting for the underdog all the way through, Roadwork lays out the complexities of the human condition.

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