Some books can never hope to live up to their covers. Roadwork is one such novel. Richard Bachman goes introspective, shifting his focus to the family. The first Bachman book about adults is dark and nihilistic, with none of the optimism that characterises many King novels that run along similar lines. There is a certain distress involved in reading Roadwork, a crushing inevitability that perhaps can’t be helped. It’s a theme that King will return to as himself in Pet Sematary, but with no supernatural interference, Roadwork hits hard.
Barton Dawes is stuck. His house and his office are both about to be demolished to make way for a new highway, and he has done nothing about it. As the calm facade that he presents to his wife and his bosses crumbles, Dawes decides that he must make a stand.
The first edition of Roadwork, subtitled “a novel of the first energy crisis”, offers an incredibly rugged cover that is wholly unrepresentative of the book inside. Roadwork looks andsounds like it could have been a wintery version of Mad Max 2, but that was not to be. Roadwork is a classic slow burn domestic drama: a terrestrial Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Falling Down meets Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s not a genre piece by any stretch; it’s just a man pushed to the edge.
Dawes’ journey is painful because it is too identifiable, and Bachman shows a man who can’t climb out of a pit not of his own creation. Anyone who has felt themselves trapped and paralysed by their circumstances will see themselves in Dawes, even if they wouldn’t go to the same extremes. The very real frustration of that scenario translates to a frustration on the page: you can’t help Dawes, and Bachman is not interested in giving him a break.
Bachman wrote Roadwork as therapy to help King cope with the grief of losing his mother as Carrie was being published, and it has the rough quality of an unbridled venting of the spleen.The ending is reached not through a progression, but a coalescence of events. The inevitability of the conclusion renders the majority of the people that Dawes encounters, including his wife, mere bystanders. All of this means that, while Roadwork has powerful passages, it is held back by inertia. King would go on to write novels along similar themes that more effectively utilise the reader’s role as a helpless witness, but Roadwork is a prototype for later, more successful, novels, and not a wholly realised work in itself.
Roadwork is a quiet piece that builds up to a loud climax, but it is a slow and sad trip getting there. There is a power to Bachman’s words, and the drama that he presents is extreme but credible. Roadwork is not a crowd pleaser, nor even a novel that difficult literature fans will necessarily get much out of. Roadwork is not assured, but it works in its own way. Had Bachman remained his own person, Roadwork may have been lost to time. In a career littered with curios, Roadwork is one of the shinier ones, but remains suitable only for completists.