What had happened, from those days until now? And why had it? And how had his life gone? And who was to blame? Or why did he think he had to blame anyone? Certainly he couldn’t even blame Mr. Roach, caught in the same turmoil as everyone believing half-truths in order to blame other people. (p. 141)
These are the forlorn thoughts of Alex Chapman, the tragic anti-hero of David Adams Richards’ masterful novel The Lost Highway. An exploration of the philosophical contortions of which man is capable, the novel tracks the desperate journey of an eternally lost and orphaned child/man who has nearly squandered his frail birthright but might yet earn some degree of redemption.
Alex spent a stunted childhood watching his gentle mother defiled by rough-handed men including Roach, his biological father. Upon his mother’s death Alex is passed into the care of his hard-nosed great-uncle Jim Chapman, nicknamed “The Tyrant” by their Miramichi community. Alex’s uncle becomes a symbol of all that he loathes. Alex distinguishes himself from this brutal masculinity that stole his mother from himby becoming a self-imposed ascetic, entering the local seminary and rehearsing his own version of piousness. But when he is tempted by the Monsignor’s request to deliver charitable funds to the bank, Alex pockets the money and flees to the home of Minnie, whom he worships and who he has learned is now pregnant by Sam Patch, a good man, but too rough in Alex’s eyes. He attempts to talk Minnie into using the money for an abortion, and it is only her refusal that sends him back to the seminary to return the money. “Do you remember if the phone rang in the booth along the highway that night?” (p. 87) asks MacIlvoy, a fellow seminarian who had gotten wind of the theft and tried to detour Alex from this path. But of course Alex had ignored the rings, as he would ignore many warnings in his tragic life.
Caught red-handed and forced to return as a prodigal son-that-never-was to his uncle’s house, Alex again flees to yet another refuge, this time to the safe moral relativism of academia, where he becomes an expert at reducing meaning to ethical dust. However, he finds himself unable to navigate the easy duplicity in which his peers are fluent, and takes an isolated and idealistic stand which causes him to be drummed out of the facultyas a figure of ridicule. A bitter and alienated Alex once again returns defeated to a shack on his uncle’s property, spending his days in the family scrapyard forging dreadful humanoid creatures out of junked metal, a modern-day Prometheus. One day he is asked by MacIlvoy, now the local priest, to create a Virgin for the church grotto. Some part of him still influenced by divinity guides his hand to create a beautiful Madonna, her face inspired by a lovely young girl he spots one day in the market. Two days later he finds out that the girl is Amy Patch, the child he urged his childhood sweetheart to abort fifteen years earlier. He will also find out that it is once again the fate of this innocent girl, at his own hands, that will determine whether he will ever experience the grace he so dearly craves.
Trudging the lost highway while mulling over his grievances as usual, Alex runs into Burton Tucker, whose own mind and body have been stunted by the brutality of his birth mother. The generally pliant Burton runs the local garage, offering lotto tickets as a bonus for oil changes. He is on his way to deliver some good news: Jim Chapman is a winner, to the tune of $13 million. Alex realizes that he could have been the one to bring Jim’s truck to Burton and receive the winning ticket, but he had refused because of the grudge he held against Jim. Once again, Alex has been thwarted by an ironic twist of fate and it is too much to bear. He decides at that moment that his uncle must never see the money, and begins a treacherous intrigue, which he justifies through the tortured ethical logic with which he has become so skilled. He unwittingly aligns himself with a very dangerous partner, Leo Bourque, the childhood bully who made his schooldays such hell, and whose days of playing cat-and-mouse with the weak Alex are not over. Their twinned descent will become deadly, marked by murder both actual and intended.
How far would any of us go to avenge a terrible wrong done to us at birth? To whom shall we assign blame? And can we achieve redemption, no matter how grievous our sins? David Adams Richards’ The Lost Highway is a taut psychological thriller that goes far beyond the genre into the worlds of Leo Tolstoy, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, as well as classical Greek mythology, testing the very limits of humankind’s all too tenuous grasp on morality.
David Adams Richards’ most recent novel, The Friends of Meager Fortune, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada and the Caribbean). His novel River of the Brokenhearted, was received with immense critical acclaim. Mercy Among the Children won the 2000 Giller Prize and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Award. He is the author of the celebrated Miramichi trilogy: Nights Below Station Street, winner of the Governor General’s Award; Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, winner of the Canadian Authors Association Award; and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. His 1998 novel, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, has been made into a feature film.
A GLOBE & MAIL BEST BOOK OF 2007