Today, Stephen King’s 55th novel, Finders Keepers, will be published by Scribner. I expect the book will be a bestseller, and King’s name will be in the press even more than usual between its publication and the June 25 premiere of the third season of Under The Dome, a television series based on his novel, and for which he’s an executive producer.
While everyone discusses if/how his new book confirms that the author is still the “master of the macabre” or the “King of horror,” I’m going to use this occasion to make an argument that, at one point, he was also one of the best postmodern fiction writers.
Where existentialism is long on detachment and the absurdity of the human condition, postmodernism is a return to familiar themes: love and death. However, it examines these themes through the same cruel, funny, absurd lens existentialists used, and it does so in the context of the present day—rife with current pop cultural ephemera.
You can see flashes and long swaths of postmodern mastery in many of King’s books (particularly his early releases, like Cujo, Needful Things, and Hearts In Atlantis), but there is one book that, in its entirety, is a postmodern masterpiece. It’s a book so brilliant, it deserves a place alongside Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the finest American postmodern works of fiction ever written.
It is also one of King’s least-known, least-loved novels: Roadwork.
Published in 1981 as a paperback, Roadwork didn’t bear the name Stephen King. Rather, it was originally released under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman. Bachman had previously authored Rage and The Long Walk, both of which are also stunning. But where the name was different, Rage and The Long Walk were recognizable as King novels in that they had strong, terrifying plot lines.
Roadwork, like White Noise, has no real plot. This lack of plot, I suspect, is the reason why the novel gets no love from longtime King acolytes. Roadwork fails as a horror book. Roadwork fails as a thriller or suspense story. The publisher positioned it as a revenge story, the original cover sporting a gaudy illustration of a B-grade, silver-haired Chuck Norris clutching a rifle and looking badass.
But really, the main character of Roadwork, Barton Dawes, resembles the working-class Jack Gladney (the protagonist of White Noise): He’s an out-of-shape middle-aged man who exists both as an authority (Gladney is a professor; Dawes manages an industrial laundry) but also as someone who is in a near-constant state of bafflement. Really, he is just trying to figure it all out.
This is not Jack Torrance of The Shining, a man locked in a hotel full of ghosts battling personal demons. Barton is a guy who spends his free time driving as much and as fast as he can as a way of dealing with the crippling energy crisis, and then going home and watching a lot of television.
In lieu of plots, Roadwork and White Noise offer premises. For White Noise, it is the “airborne toxic event” and the mysterious drug, Dylar. For Roadwork, it is the energy crisis (the book is set at the beginning of 1972), and the impending roadwork: a highway extension is being built, and Barton’s job and home are both in its path, which means they’ll be razed.
If this were set in the dystopian America of The Long Walk, perhaps the road construction could be the basis for an actual plot—a totalitarian government tearing a family from their home, taking everything from them, for instance. Instead, Roadwork takes place in Midwestern, suburban America, and the government wants very much to give Barton a nice big check so that he and his wife can go buy another house. As for his place of employment, all he needs to do is go find another site for the industrial laundry (in fact, as the book opens, it seems there’s already a place picked out). Again, the company wants to give him a check. It’s not even like he’s got to go out of pocket.
Roadwork, which was published four years before White Noise, is, in many ways, the blue-collar version of DeLillo’s novel. The parallels are at times so striking, that I was sure DeLillo was influenced by Roadwork.
I reached out to the acclaimed author hoping to get an answer. “Sorry to say, I have not read the King novel,” DeLillo wrote via email.
White Noise largely revolves around the airborne toxic event, in which a train derailment releases poisonous, potentially lethal chemicals into the atmosphere. It’s threatening and scary, but the facts of it keep shifting (in regard to the chemical cloud itself), with no one really knowing anything about it, even though it’s dictating the lives of residents. The energy crisis in Roadwork is similar in that it’s ever-present and looming with characters both dealing with it, and struggling against it. Television news reports constantly warn viewers of the dangerous toxins, and experts give tips on how to better live in the midst of the epidemic. Both cases, however, are examples of how King and DeLillo use particular occurrences as a refusal to adhere to common sense or order. They have no meaning. They just are.
In lieu of order and meaning, White Noise offers broader themes: unchecked consumerism, false intellectualism, academic theater, and hyper-consumption in media. Even during the darkest discussions, consumerism is right there:
Who will die first? She says she wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me. She discusses the subject with such argumentative force that it’s obvious she thinks we have a choice in the matter. She also thinks nothing can happen to us as long as there are dependent children in the house. The kids are a guarantee of our relative longevity. We’re safe as long as they’re around. But once they get big and scatter, she wants to be the first to go. She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.
MasterCard, Visa, American Express.
I tell her I want to die first. I’ve gotten so used to her that I would feel miserably incomplete. We are two views of the same person. I would spend the rest of my life turning to speak to her.
Four years earlier, Roadwork employs an identical strategy. King makes us constantly aware of just how ubiquitous products are; they are there at every moment, no matter how intimate or dire. He lingers on signage and packaging, the copy from which is constantly peppering the narration, enriching it, or, in some cases, actually completing it. This passage finds Barton at the grocery store:
He was on his way down a middle aisle toward the checkouts when God perhaps spoke to him. There was a woman in front of him, wearing powder-blue slacks and a blue cable-stitched sweater of a navy color. She had very yellow hair. She was maybe thirty-five, good looking in an open, alert way. She made a funny gobbling, crowing noise in her throat and staggered. The squeeze bottle of mustard she had been holding in her hand fell to the floor and rolled, showing a red pennant and the word FRENCH’S over and over again.
“Ma’am?” he ventured. “Are you okay?”
The woman fell backward and her left hand, which she had put up to steady herself, swept a score of coffee cans onto the floor. Each can said:
Good To The Very Last Drop.
In a world that is overwhelmed by products and brand names, the grocery store becomes church-like in both novels. It is the place where people gather, where they see proof of life, of death, or as King notes, where “God perhaps [speaks].” About Barton, King writes, “He liked to go shopping. It was very soothing, very sane.” In another scene, Barton is at the Stop ‘n’ Shop and runs into an old neighbor who’s since moved, as his house is also set to be demolished by the approaching roadwork.
Jack’s cart was full of frozen foods, heat-and-serve canned products, and a lot of beer.
“Jack!” he said. “What are you doing way over here?”
Jack smiled a little. “I haven’t got used to the other store yet, so... I thought…”
“She had to fly back to Cleveland,” he said. “Her mother died.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry Jack. Wasn’t that sudden?”
Shoppers were moving all around them under the cold overhead lights. Muzak came down from hidden speakers, old standards that you could never quite recognize. A woman with a full cart passed them, dragging a screaming three-year-old in a blue parka with snot on the sleeves.
“Yeah, it was,” Jack Hobart said. He smiled meaninglessly and looked down into his cart. There was a large yellow bag there that said:
KITTY-PAN KITTY LITTER
Use It, Throw It Away!
Jack Hobart, unlike Barton, has moved on from his home, although he’s still not ready to leave the familiar comfort of his grocery store. In this small scene, we witness friends gather, we witness youth, we witness death, and it’s all in the midst of those cold overhead lights and soft Muzak.
Compare this to one of the many supermarket scenes in White Noise, which considers similar themes:
We ran into Murray Jay Siskind at the supermarket. His basket held generic food and drink, nonbrand items in plain white packages with simple labeling. There was a white can labeled CANNED PEACHES. There was a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a representative slice. A jar of roasted nuts had a white wrapper bearing the words IRREGULAR PEANUTS. Murray kept nodding to Babette as I introduced them.
“This is the new austerity,” he said. “Flavorless packaging. It appeals to me. I feel I’m not only saving money but contributing to some kind of spiritual consensus. It’s like World War III. Everything is white. They’ll take our bright colors away and use them in the war effort.”
He was staring into Babette’s eyes, picking up items from our cart and smelling them.
In another scene set within the supermarket, DeLillo writes of the “ultra-cool interior” and how “the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children.”
Love, life, death, and God. They’re all on sale at your local Safeway.
Roadwork and White Noise are certainly horrifying. They are obsessed with death. The characters never really stop thinking about it or talking about it. Jack and his wife discuss who wants to die first, with Jack telling her he’d want to be the first to go while secretly hoping he outlives her. His exposure to the toxic cloud means he’s dying, though the book makes it clear that, by simply living, we’re all in the process of dying. The purpose of the mystery drug, Dylar, which becomes a plot device, is to eliminate one’s fear of death. Similarly, in Roadwork, Barton is constantly faced with death: his son’s, the woman in the grocery store, a coworker’s auto accident, and a later suicide. The concept of suicide begins to haunt Barton, as it simultaneously fascinates and terrifies him. (King also claims he wrote the book in response to his mother’s death.)
Whether juxtaposed next to death, or not, there’s a constant wit throughout the narration of both novels. And one of the more enjoyable aspects of both Roadwork and White Noise are when their characters are simply talking to one another—or, in the case of Roadwork, when Barton is talking to himself.
In White Noise, DeLillo repeatedly takes us to a university cafeteria where Jack and his colleagues, fellow professors, have lunch. We’re in no rush to find out about the latest events concerning of the toxic cloud. Rather, we enjoy conversation after conversation about men’s rooms, James Dean, and sex.
King, on the other hand, takes us to a diner:
Tom laughed and tapped more ashes into his plate. Gayle came back and asked them if they wanted more coffee. They both ordered more.
“I got those cotter pins today for the boiler door,” Tom said. “They remind me of my dork.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, you should see those sons of bitches. Nine inches long and three through the middle.”
“Did you mention my dork?” he asked, and they both laughed and talked shop until it was time to go back to work.
These are the things men talk about as chemical clouds gather overhead and the wrecking balls swing toward our homes: our dicks, and what we do with them.
If one of the points of postmodernism is that we see Love, Life, Death, and God in all things and all places—from the supermarket to the television—then we don’t need to only look at the National Book Award winning novel to find genius. DeLillo has been rightly and thoroughly lauded for his achievements, but King remains a controversial figure in the literary world, and when you read some of his work, there’s no question why. But taken on its own, Roadwork is a singular, funny, and wholly inventive novel brimming with postmodern ideals. DeLillo invents a college and a field of study to tell his story, but King points at a random house on a random street in a random neighborhood in a random suburb and asks, Why not that? Isn’t this place just as worthy as the basis for an entire novel? Must a person be a professor and head of Hitler Studies (like Jack) for him to be a hero? Can’t he just be anybody?
King seems aware of this even as he writes Roadwork: “A nice street, Fred. A nice neighborhood. Oh, I know how the intellectuals sneer at suburbia—it’s not as romantic as the rat-infested tenements of the hale-and-hearty back-to-the-land stuff. There are no great museums in suburbia, no great forests, no great challenges. But there had been good times.”
Good times, indeed. And that’s what ultimately makes both White Noise and its earthier cousin, Roadwork, so successful: they’re just fun to read. King and DeLillo captured/ created unique voices that were alternately harrowing and hilarious, insightful and incredulous, and at all times, compelling.
In one of the very first scenes of Roadwork, Barton finds himself in a gun shop. He’s not even really sure what he’s doing there, or what he’s supposed to say, so in speaking with the proprietor, Harry, he improvises, lying here and there to keep the small talk going. In the middle of this exchange, King pauses to reflect: “He felt that he could go on talking to Harry all day, for the rest of the year, embroidering the truth and the lies into a beautiful, gleaming tapestry. Let the world go by. Fuck the gas shortage and the high price of beef and the shaky ceasefire...”
I’m with you, Barton. I could sit here reading King and DeLillo all day, for the rest of the year, as they weave truth and lies into the beautiful, gleaming postmodern masterpieces their respective novels are.
[Image via AP]