My Year of King, #8: Roadwork (Richard Bachman)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Change-the only constant in this crazy universe. Sometimes change can be exhilarating, and sometimes it can be catastrophic, but the big ones rarely come without some sort of strong emotions attached. Such was the case for Bart Dawes, protagonist (?) of King's 1981 novel Roadwork, written under his pseudonym of Richard Bachman.

Bart was a loyal husband, and a loyal employee of the laundry service he'd worked for most of his life. The first blow to Bart's sense of the world comes when the laundry is bought by a large conglomerate, reducing him from a person to a number. Then, the state decides they need to build a new highway-right through Bart's neighborhood. This will displace both he and his wife, as well as the laundry he works for. Bart denies the reality of these changes as long as he can, at least consciously. Unconsciously, he plots revenge against the people he sees as responsible for the changes that are upending his life. He is determined to stop the march of progress in its tracks. Slowly, George unravels mentally and emotionally, fighting an ultimately futile battle against corporate and government might.

If you've seen the movie Falling Down with Michael Douglas, you are already familiar with the mood and tone of Roadwork. Bart Dawes is one in a long line of King characters who do terrible things, but whom you can't help feel sorry for (more on that when I write my review of Cujo). Obviously, Dawes is meant to represent the idealized past, a time when loyalty and hard work meant something, and when people were more important than profits. Of course, as anyone who's studied history knows, that idealized past never really existed; at least, not for long, and never for everyone. But Dawes does represent a certain type of middle class white man; men like my father, actually. My dad literally started in the mail-room of ComEd in 1970, and eventually worked his way up to management. He worked for the company for over 30 years, with a pension plan and Cadillac insurance. Admittedly, that sort of job is basically a unicorn in the 21st century. Now, people go from job to job every few years, dragging their 401K with them if they are lucky. But for white men working in skilled manufacturing and lower level management-type jobs 60 years ago, a certain level of stability, respect, and loyalty from their employers were expected. It was these men who were the most affected by, and critical of, the changes in the employment landscape and the social contract that led to where we are today. Suddenly, the world didn't make sense anymore; the basic assumptions under which you've operated your whole life suddenly turn out to be false.

One of the things King likes to do is explore is what happens when you put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Some, like Jack Torrance and Bart Dawes, slowly go insane. Some, like Stu Redman and Larry Underwood (The Stand), rise to the occasion. While what happened to Bart Dawes was not nearly the terror-filled insanity of Jack Torrance in The Shining, the loss of his identity and his grasp on reality was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to Bart. And like the factory-workers, coal miners, and steel-workers of the late 20th century who fought and fought to save their dying industries, Bart too is unable to stop the inevitable march of progress that led to his demise. Unfortunately, because Bart Dawes is such an entitled, white male character, longing for the days when he and people like him were on top of the societal food chain (spoiler alert-they still are), I couldn't really relate to him as a character, especially as his desire to keep things from changing led him to basically sacrifice anything and anyone else (including his wife) to his cause.

All of the Bachman books are pretty dark, and this one is no exception. You don't exactly get a happy ending in any of them. Unlike Rage and The Long Walk, which forecast possible futures (sadly, the school shooting has become all-too frequent since Rage was written), Roadwork looks backward, asking us to consider whether all this "progress" is worth the cost.

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