So, after being massively disappointed by Stephen King’s attempt at serving notice as a “literary writer” with “Lisey’s Story” (on the heels of reading the modest disappointment “Duma Key”), I started to wonder about my own fascination with and defense of King as a writer.
King was the first writer I truly loved, and I spent much of my middle school and high school years catching up on his extensive catalog (which, of course, has only grown since then). I was blown away by the worlds he created in his individual books, but also by the “intertextuality” of so many of the different books: his Castle Rock and Derry stories share so many characters and scenes and memories and settings…kind of like a grown-up’s version of the Marvel Universe. And “The Stand” is still one of my favorite books of all-time, a gigantic epic that–during high school–I would argue about with teachers. “This should be on the AP test!” I told them. “This is complicated, well-written, and is teeming with themes that are relevant to the time period, but are still universal. This is every bit as important as a Charles Dickens novel, and yet we can’t call it literature? We dismiss Stephen King as a popular writer?” Okay, I wasn’t that eloquent, but you get the picture. I loved King, and compared to “Crime and Punishment” or “The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” This book captured the fears of the Cold War, the arms race, the oil shortage…why wasn’t Stephen King a writer of literature, not just a popular writer? It made no sense to me, and made me love King that much more.
But then again…I was in high school.
So, after aging by more than a decade and after reading some of his more recent books and feeling disappointed, I started to have second thoughts. Maybe I loved King because I was 15 and rebellious. So I decided to read some of his earlier novels, books that feel unfamiliar to me, to try to make a better decision. And I’ll tell you what: I am ridiculously happy that I picked up “Roadwork.” It proves that, just because my tastes have been refined and my reading list has grown, I still knew something about good writing back when I was 15…I wasn’t a complete idiot after all.
“Roadwork” is a fantastic little book, first published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, that focuses upon a laundry worker named Bart Dawes, whose home and workplace are both scheduled for demolition under an eminent domain highway expansion. The book, quite simply, is Dawes’ tragedy. The man cannot cope with the destruction of his former life and world, and snaps. It’s a bit like “Falling Down” or “American Beauty” or even “Network”: he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. And the book succeeds so perfectly because it is small (not bloated, like many of King’s less successful novels), it is sharp, and it allows the character to determine the story, not the other way around. In short, it is a character-based novel, and its themes are every bit as resonant as “The Stand.” Paranoia with the government, loss of faith in the government and in civilization. Dehumanization of the individual, even as society supposedly progresses. Violence as the only form of public protest that will gain attention.
“Roadwork” isn’t perfect, and King writes in his introduction to “The Bachman Books” that it was his least favorite of the Bachman works, but I thought it was brilliant. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” the second in the Rabbit Angstrom series: a blue-collar white man at the crossroads of cultural progress, his life slipping all around him, voluntarily choosing defeat. The tone is so dark, and that feeling of 1970s American despair is so thick, that you can’t stop thinking about the novel for quite awhile after you’ve finished. It truly captures the “spirit of the times.”
Okay. So Stephen King has redeemed his literary credentials…not that he–or the literary establishment–really cares about my ultimate judgment. I wrote in a review of “Lisey’s Story” that the book failed (in part) because it was so similar to one of his earlier novels, “Rose Madder,” but most people wouldn’t know because “Rose Madder” had been forgotten about…and that, years later, any author will have a list of Remembered Works and a fading list of out-of-print forgotten works. My individual opinion might not matter to the author or the world of literary criticism (he will be remembered no matter what I say, and my words will not sway the worldwide consensus), but I do hope that “Roadwork” will join that list of Remembered Works. It’s far too strong a novel to be dismissed or forgotten.