Written as Richard Bachman
New American Library / 1981 / 274 pages
A Novel Critique
Roadwork represents a distinct shift in the Richard Bachman canon. The third book Stephen King published under the Bachman name, Roadwork has moved beyond the concerns of teenagers, either real (as in Rage) or fantastical (The Long Walk). From here, each novel King will publish pseudonymously focuses on adults, interestingly paralleling the shift in interest in King's "regular” career. That is not to say, however, that King has dismissed the concerns or themes of his previous Bachman books. Despite the shift in focus, Roadwork once again interests itself in the story of a man working against the will of a society that seems to want to destroy him. This man's name is Barton George Dawes, and as the novel opens, we find him beginning to go insane.
Unlike in Rage, this is never explicitly stated in the text. King's emergent maturity and complexity in the early books written under his own name are evident here, as well; Dawes's growing disconnection from reality is implied, shown through his actions. In the opening sequence, we see Dawes buying guns from the local weapons supply shop. Gradually, we are made aware that he knows nothing about guns, and bluffs his way through the transaction, only interested in buying the biggest. (This is interestingly reminiscent of a similar scene from the Martin Scorcese movie Taxi Driver, in which an unbalanced Travis Bickle purchases illicit guns from a dealer in a hotel room. A smaller connection to the film surfaces later, when Dawes notices a sign reading THIMK, as discussed by the film's Betsy and Travis.) Following this, his internal voice attempts to question his decision to buy the guns, and Dawes shuts the voice down, dismissing it. Dawes envisions this as a circuit breaker, shutting down things he doesn't want to face. As early as this first chapter, we find Dawes disassociating not only from the world around him, but also from his own motivations.
His internal voice is important: in his mind, he frequently holds conversations with his dead son, Charlie Frederick Dawes. When Charlie was alive, he and Dawes would call each other by their middle names: Charlie was Freddy and Bart was George. Since Charlie's death - of an inoperable, cancerous brain tumor - Freddy surfaces in Dawes's mind often as the voice of sanity and rationality. As Roadwork progresses, Dawes ignores this voice more and more, intent on creating his own reality in which, through his own sheer will, nothing in his life changes, and everything he loves remains the same.
The roadwork of the title refers to a new highway extension; it's not necessary, being built merely to avoid losing federal funding. The extension will cut through Dawes's home and the place he's worked for over two decades, the Blue Ribbon Laundry (an explicit connection with King's novels, the Blue Ribbon is the laundry at which Margaret White, Carrie's mother, works). Though he has been duly compensated for his home, and the proposed new location for the Blue Ribbon seems just as good - if not better - than his current location, Dawes steadfastly refuses to be moved. The metaphorical link between extension and his son's inoperable cancer is made overt when Dawes muses that, "God decided to do a little roadwork on Ö Charlie's brain.” His irrational guilt over Charlie's death twists into an equally irrational desperation to stop the roadwork. At first convinced that simply ignoring it will arrest its construction, Dawes eventually decides to take violent action. (In this, Dawes recalls Rage's Charlie Decker, lashing out against a society and an institution that seems to care little for him.) The real tragedy of Roadwork is that, as with Charlie's cancer, nothing Dawes can do even slows the roadwork down; its progress is implacable.
Dawes's desire to remain rooted in the past ironically undercuts his need for stability. His determination to remain in his home and at the Laundry's current location costs him his job and his wife, Mary. In a heated argument before Mary leaves, she asks whether Dawes believes she murdered his son by birthing him faulty. When Dawes protests, stating Charlie was theirs, she screams back, "He was yours!” Following this, she reminds Dawes that she depends on him, and that she knows nothing but how to be his wife. However, less than a month after they separate, Mary seems to have achieved at least a modicum of independence. Unlike Dawes, she is able to move on.
Roadwork is one of King's most mainstream novels, touching on themes King has worked with over the course of his career, removed entirely from supernatural factors. Perhaps writing under the Bachman name freed him from this seeming necessity; even in King's most mainstream books written under his own name - Cujo, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - nods to the uncanny seem almost compulsory, though even Blaze, the later Bachman book with which Roadwork shares some similarities (particularly the device of the main character talking with a dead person who represents seemingly more rational thought) seems determined to hint at the supernatural. The political and social upheavals of the 1970s that helped structure The Dead Zone provide much of the motivation in Roadwork. Later, in King's Pet Sematary, Louis Creed's actions echo Dawes's, ignoring rational arguments to the point of insanity while trying - in Creed's case, literally - to bring his dead son back to life. Additionally, much of the horror in Christine stems from resistance to change, and obsessive glorification of the past.
In the initial 1985 introduction to the omnibus collection, The Bachman Books, King states that Roadwork may be the worst of these four early books, "simply because it tries so hard to be good and to find some answers to the conundrum of human pain.” In the later 1996 essay, "The Importance of Being Bachman” (accompanying the re-release of the Bachman Books anthology), King calls Roadwork, "my favorite of the early Bachman books.” Whether time, experience, or the return to writing under Bachman's name had anything to do with King's change of heart is unknown, and whether Roadwork is the best of the Bachman books is highly subjective. But the narrowly focused human story, devoid of any supernatural or speculative trappings, makes this novel - among either Bachman's books or King's - unique.