Roadwork is the third novel King released using the synonym Richard Bachman. Contrary to what I thought until quite recently, he apparently actually wrote this between writing 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, which explains the 1973 setting. It was King's first attempt at writing a "straight drama", and while it worked, King's fingerprints are all over it.
This is the first Bachman book that isn't centered around teenagers. It's also the first one that doesn't have any elements of "horror" to it, though one could say that Rage didn't, either. Then again, one of the first actions our protagonist in Rage takes is to murder someone, so I can understand how that one gets classified as "horror". Roadwork is dark, depressing and in some parts, violent. But it's not a horror story. It's not even trying to be.
Also gone is the clinical tone of the first two Bachman books. You feel everything here. And it hurts.
This story concerns the uncaring, unfeeling raping life often hands you as an adult that you're expected to just shut up and take. Our protagonist, Barton Dawes, hasn't done a thing to ask for all the crap that's happening to him. He's been a faithful husband, a valued employee at his job (even management material) and owns a fine home in the suburbs that's fully paid for, all at the age of about 40.
And here's what life has handed him for all his hard work: his son Charlie died of a brain tumor over two years before the novel's beginning, and now the only way Bart can function is holding fake "conversations" with him in his head, where he acts as his father's conscience. Thanks to a highway extension the city has undertaken, he's about to lose both his house and his job.
But then, that's part of the problem. No one's threatening him with homelessness and joblessness. He has the physical ability to move into a different house, and he's also the man in charge of securing a new building for his work, which is the Blue Ribbon laundry company. But something has snapped in Bart's mind. He finds himself unable to face the idea of leaving the house his son was born and raised in, and the building he poured his life into, rising to a management position. He cannot accept that his entire life is about to be uprooted for no other reason than to save drivers a bit of road time.
To make matters worse, the 1973-74 energy crisis is in full swing. Everyone's anxious, no one knows how the coming winter is going to hurt them.
I could resonate with Bart. I've gone through miscarriages with my wife. I have had a marriage crumble with nothing to be done to save it, and I have had more than one job disappear on me through no fault of my own. I know what it feels like when life grabs you, spreads those cheeks and hate-fucks you just because it can. Sometimes the only thing preventing me from taking the actions Bart Dawes takes in this story is concern for how it would affect people I love. For Bart, even that isn't enough. There's only one person left who he really cares about, and he convinces himself that somehow trying to deny, or prevent, the inevitable, is doing right by his wife.
Done right, this could be an Oscar-caliber movie. It's more or less a one-man show, as Bart's actions drive the narrative throughout, and whoever ends up playing Bart should probably be prepared for a Best Actor campaign. This will probably be one of those King adaptations that keeps his name kinda low-key. Remember how The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile seemed to deliberately hide the fact that they were based on King movies? Stand By Me and Misery did the same, for that matter, as did others. King's name is often splashed in huge lettering on posters, even titling the movies "Stephen King's Whatever", but often where his straight dramas were concerned, you'd only notice his name if you bothered reading the credits. This will probably happen here, too.
I want a big name behind this one. Part of me wants Sam Raimi to do this (his best film, A Simple Plan is bleak like this one) and another part wants Clint Eastwood. Let's go with Clint. I'll let him pick the screenwriter.
I honestly don't know why this has never been filmed; it's very cinematic.
But then, maybe I do know. At points in the story, Bart holds very animated conversations in his head with another personality that he calls "Fred" and "Fred" calls him "George". It's revealed almost immediately that Bart's full name is Barton George Dawes, and comes as no surprise when Charlie's full name is revealed to have been Charles Frederick Dawes. "George" is his dominate personality, the one the public sees and the one that's busy making sure he hangs on to his old life for as long as he can. "Fred" is the better part of himself, the one that's trying to make him see reason. I don't see a way for these conversations to be internalized, and using voice-over is always cheesy. But then, so would having the actor play both parts. Maybe a kid who plays Charlie can also play Fred, even just removing the whole "Fred/George" interplay and having his alternate persona be his dead son. A skilled screenwriter can make this work.
Throughout the reading of this, I wondered if updating the setting would work, or if this should stay in the 70's. The environment created by the energy crisis was pretty unique, and this book is firmly rooted in the mindset of those times, but I wondered if today's job crisis would work just as well. In the end, I decided there was more gravitas in keeping the original setting. Making it a historical that can be related to our current issues just adds to the award-bait feel.
Now for casting. The role of Barton Dawes has to be cast well. It hinges on being played by an actor skilled enough to carry this off. If you'd asked me twenty years ago, I would have said Viggo Mortensen in a heartbeat, but Dawes is only 40, so Mortensen has, regrettably, aged out. In their prime, Sean Penn or Tim Robbins would have knocked this out of the park. The original cover of the book (though rather inaccurate) made me think of Eastwood in his prime. If Bryan Cranston were twenty years younger, I'd pick him, because Bart Dawes has a lot in common with Walter White. I struggled to think of an actor in the right age range who has the sort of screen presence this role requires. Initially I went with Bradley Cooper, but I think he might just possibly be too handsome and WASPish for Bart. Bart is very much working class. He should looks like a dude who's spent his life working hard. Jeremy Renner is 45, which is five years older than Bart, and not, in my opinion, too old to play 40.
I liked the few short scenes featuring Tom Granger, the head tech guy at the laundry, and I pictured Craig Robinson in the part for whatever reason.
next novel after that one. I'm itching to get to that.