The Dark Highway

“Everybody thought it was a big joke… It was so funny, I just kept on going…Everybody thought I was just going to go on tweaking the Major’s balls to the very end. Which was what I did. Then one morning I woke up and I was in. I was a Prime Walker…So I guess it turned out the Major was tweaking my balls.” Stephen King, The Long Walk

“First of all, if Bush’s popularity points were two points off, Obama would have never been elected. But Bush had crossed the line. He’d gotten so blatantly and brazenly disgusting… And then, what does Obama do, he acts pretty much like Bush, you know? Signs the same letters, continues the same ban on torture photographs. Power never turns power down. So, this country’s going to go down, and its problem is, it won’t change its name, the documents will remain in place, it’ll look like the same country, but it’ll go down… if you got onto an airplane and heard an announcement that said, ‘We’re going to pick the pilot from business class today,’ you’d get off the plane. Well, that’s what we do with the country.”Richard Dreyfuss, 2009 Interview

Last two days of July.

Last two signings of the second leg of the Farewell (But Not Really) 2016 Tour in support of new novels Pressure and The Complex.

Last hundred dollars.

But thanks to the generosity of my readers, I still had bourbon aplenty.

Last two days of July, and America was devouring itself in a frenzied, perpetual state of what Hunter S. Thompson called “Fear and Loathing.” Unarmed black youth and armed police officers were both being gunned down. The shootings became standard fodder for the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, as dependable and familiar as those insipid local interest reports you see on your hometown news station. “FOX 43’s Carl is at the craft fair. CBS 21’s Alicia is on the scene of the spelling bee. In Cincinnati, police shoot a black motorist fifty-seven times. In Buffalo, a black motorist shoots fifty-seven police officers. Now sports and weather, and a look at this year’s fall fashions.” Everywhere I traveled, Trump banners hung from barns and factories, and sprouted from yards like grass. Given the racial tension that was rife in the country at the time, it is perhaps easy to understand the insistence of some on the Left who clung to the belief that anyone who supported Trump was a racist. It wasn’t true, of course—no truer than the insistence of some on the Right who clung to the belief that Obama was a secret Muslim born in Kenya. But as we’ve already covered in this column, logic and critical thinking had flown the fucking coop for eighty percent of those on the Left and the Right, leaving those of us in the middle to stare and gape in horror and confusion.

Saying all Trump supporters are racist is like saying all Clinton supporters are Communists, or all Muslims are terrorists, or all Jews covet money, or all clergy molest children, or all horror writers are alcoholics. Yes, there was a racist contingent that certainly—and loudly—supported Trump that summer, but there was an equally loud and racist contingent supporting Hillary Clinton, as well.   

Boiling it all down to racism was a willfully stupid act, because it ignored the mood that was happening in this country—a mood that had taken hold shortly after the start of the Iraq war, and had deepened through the rest of the rotten Bush-Cheney Gang’s tenure, and the equally rotten Obama tenure that had followed. That mood had nothing to do with being registered a Republican or a Democrat, and everything to do with the growing, sweeping awareness that the entrenched members of both parties—the Pelosis and McConnells and Grahams and Reids and McCains—were serving themselves, rather than the people. And like Richard Dreyfuss said in the eerily prescient 2009 quote at the start of this week’s column, a growing number of American’s were willing to kick the pilots off the airplane and pick someone from business class to fly it instead. Never underestimate the lure and empowerment that the ability to say “Fuck you” has on the average American—even if they know it might be detrimental to them.

The signing in Beckley, West Virginia went well. We sold about two dozen books, which is good for a town that size under the current economic conditions. I’ve known Anne-Marie—the manager of the Books-A-Million there—for most of my career. She was one of the first retail chain managers to give me a signing, way back in 2004 when my first novel, The Rising, came out in paperback. That was also in Beckley, but she was managing a Waldenbooks back then. Waldenbooks is long gone now. It has vanished just like West Virginia’s coal mining and logging industries have vanished. The state populace voted for Democrats and Republicans—both of whom promised to save those jobs—but in the end, the Democrats and Republicans just argued with each other while the jobs went away. The people of West Virginia are resilient, however. They found other jobs. And so did Anne-Marie, moving from Waldenbooks and Borders to Books-A-Million, and managing to stay in the same town.

Not all West Virginians were so lucky. Some moved from logging and coal mining to welfare or the grave. Some turned to meth, as either a manufacturer, supplier, or user. Or sometimes all three. A few were lucky enough to find other work. As of 2011, the state’s four largest private employers were Wal-Mart, West Virginia United Health System, the Charleston Area Medical Center, and grocery chain Kroger. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Statistics loves to report that, despite coal exports continuing to decline (a loss of $2.9 billion in 2013), West Virginia’s economy grew. Well, sure it did. On paper. Some folks were lucky enough to get jobs at Wal-Mart and Kroger, where they then spent their paychecks. And the meth business kept the medical industry busy. In 2013, West Virginia ranked last in the nation with an employment-to-population ratio of only fifty percent. That means fully fifty percent of the population was unemployed.

Trump signs dotted Beckley that July like Christmas decorations. Months later, in November, West Virginia voted to give the guy from business class a chance to fly the airplane.

Brian Keene, Brian Hatcher and Michael Knost
(Photo Copyright 2016 Michael Knost)

After the signing, I went to a steakhouse with authors Michael Knost and Brian Hatcher. We had wonderful meals and lots of whiskey while we talked about writing and publishing, swapped industry gossip and rumors, and had a great time catching up.

The next morning, I headed for Pittsburgh. It rained the entire way. I’m not talking some spring shower, either. No, this was one of those apocalyptic summer storms of the same size and quantity that I’d begun this leg of the tour with. The synchronicity was not lost on me. At the beginning of the month, I’d departed for a tour of the southern United States. While wending my way down the coast, a death storm had forced me off the road, and ended up putting my Jeep in the repair shop. Now, a full four weeks later, a twin deluge was occurring as I crossed back through the state.

I managed to cross the state line, but the storm’s ferocity only increased. At one point near Pittsburgh, I found myself coasting through cattle chutes—cement construction barriers that turned an otherwise busy highway into a one-lane traffic nightmare. A long line of cars crawled ahead of me, their speed reduced to single digits because of the lack of visibility and the force of the winds. It was around noon, but the highway was pitch black, and not even my high beams were cutting through the gloom. Water churned along the roadway, funneled by the construction barriers. I watched it creep over the tires of the car in front of me. The wind hammered at vehicles, bouncing them back and forth. I watched a tractor trailer up ahead as its backend swerved, sideswiping the barrier. For one terrifying moment, I thought he was going to jackknife, stranding all of us in this gauntlet of death. But then he straightened his trailer out and headed on. Gripping the wheel, I stared straight ahead into the darkness and kept driving.

What else could I do? What can any of us do in that situation? Pulling over to wait it out is an impossibility. Your only option is to drive forward, focusing your energies on making it through to the other side.

Darkness enshrouds our nation. I’m writing this in mid-December, and the country is collectively holding its breath. And let me make something very clear—it would have been dark under Clinton, as well. I know members of certain organized crime groups who are in awe of the power of the Clintons. But it would have been a familiar darkness—the same type of darkness that has gripped this country since…well, I guess most would argue since Bush Senior, although I would argue it goes back to the death of Kennedy. Donald J. Trump is a different kind of darkness—or at the very least, he’s done a masterful job of convincing people he is a different kind of darkness; an anti-globalist warrior standing up against the New World Order, an agent of change against the machinations of the elite, a wall against the corrupt malaise of the old-boys-and-girls-beltway-association.

Donald Trump didn’t win the election because of Russians or racism or any of the other reasons the talking heads on television pontificate about. He won because half the nation has had it with the bullshit from Washington, and are fed up with the elites in both parties. Donald Trump was a chance for people to go into their voting booth, and when nobody was looking—not their neighbors or their friends or their spouse or their employers—they could lob a Molotov cocktail and say “Fuck you.” Donald J. Trump was their chance to engage in a little safe anarchy, a chance to smash some fucking windows without having to risk arrest.

And as a result, now we’ve got a new kind of darkness to contend with. Drive forward, focusing your energies on making it through to the other side…

…or stay in the cattle chute and wait to drown.

I signed in Pittsburgh at Rickert & Beagle Books—a genre staple and historic store which is pretty much the Dark Delicacies of the East Coast, specializing in horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles. Like all independent bookstores, they’ve been struggling this year. But so has Pittsburgh itself.

Now, everyone knows the bad times that were visited upon Pittsburgh when the steel industry underwent the same changes that besieged the logging and coal mining industries. But unlike West Virginia, Pittsburgh was able to turn things around, shifting to technology, robotics, health care, nuclear engineering, and financial industries. Pittsburgh is the poster child for managing industrial transition. The Economist’s Global Liveability Ranking placed Pittsburgh as the first- or second-most livable city in the United States in 2005, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2014. Google, Apple, Bosch, Facebook, Uber, Nokia, and IBM are among the almost two-thousand technology firms generating $20.7 billion in annual Pittsburgh payrolls. The area has served also as the long-time federal agency headquarters for cyber defense, software engineering, robotics, and energy research. The nation’s fifth-largest bank, eight Fortune 500 companies, and six of the top U.S. law firms make their global headquarters in Pittsburgh.

That’s why Pittsburgh has been chafing over the last year under a new urban renewal plan proposed by Democratic mayor Bill Peduto, a politician in the tradition of that old guard I mentioned above. His project, known as P4, is a confusing and contradictory set of sliding criteria for subsidized development project approval that, according to many experts, downplays the need job-producing, growth-enhancing and economy-bolstering enterprises while increasing taxes and then wasting that taxpayer revenue.

Trump signs dotted Pittsburgh that July like Christmas decorations. Months later, in November, Pennsylvania also voted to give the guy from business class a chance to fly the airplane.

I did my part to help out Rickert & Beagle, signing books and encouraging first-time customers to return to the store again, and dropping my last hundred dollars on a signed and personalized Isaac Asimov hardcover for Mary’s father. You can do your part, too, by checking them out online. They ship books anywhere. 

When the signing was over, I got back in the Jeep and back onto the road, finally heading for home. The storm had abated, but another one was brewing on the horizon. The sun set, and there was no moon or stars to light my way.

I drove forward into darkness, determined to seek my own light.

*   *   *

Two hours later…

“Siri…” I cleared my throat, double-checked that I wasn’t using the phone registered to me, and then tried again. “Siri, look up Pennsylvania State Laws regarding theft of a corpse.”

“Hang on while I look that up for you.”

Johnny Cash drifted from the Jeep’s speakers, singing about seeing a darkness, and desperately pleading for someone to save him from it…

To Be Continued…

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

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