The lost highway : a novel /
David Adams Richards.
Toronto : Doubleday Canada, c2007.
393 p.
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Toronto : Doubleday Canada, c2007.
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A Look Inside
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Governor Generals Literary Awards, CAN, 2008 : Nominated
First Chapter
Burton Tucker moved to the haystack and sat down in the brine of hay, and looked down across the barn and into the open, in the space beyond his house where in the sky was a cloud the shape and color of black gunpowder. The day was still murky and warm, and a feeling of oppressive, ragged heat surrounded him.

"What is hidden will be revealed,"Tucker said. This is what old Muriel Chapman said to him once when he was visiting her. She had smiled at him, when he said he had no idea what was going to happen if things did not get better - for now everyone was talking about a big war. And he heard this war would be closer than ever, perhaps as close as Fredericton. They would come in the night, and at night be like thieves. He had been to Fredericton once as a bat boy with a baseball team.

"What is hidden will be revealed,"she had said, simply. This of course implied nothing or everything depending on how one viewed it, but made her seem very wise to Burton at any rate. And he had heard of both night and nightly thieves from the Bible, which he kept together with his trophies and his pictures in his office drawer.

Mrs. Chapman had, as people said, lived an exemplary life. She did charity work for many people and it was known that she had baked for the community Christmas dinner for thirty-nine years. The problem in her life was her great-nephew Alex Chapman. She gave him everything, went to the principal's office in high school, and took up for him. Tried to do this for him, tried to do that.

He had had problems many times in his life, and things did not turn out. He had come home a few years ago, and worked for his great-uncle Jim off and on, disillusioned and ill tempered, for the great "turn of events" that he had hoped and longed for had not happened to him. Some day, as he often said, or said often enough, these great events would come and he would be recognized.

"Then the fools will be sorry," he had said.

"Yes they will," Burton said.

"The fools will be sorry, Burton."

"I'm sure of it," Burton acknowledged.

When Alex was young and small, his great-uncle put him to work after school in the junkyard, or back at the pit burning garbage. The boy would go to school, with three feet of snow on the ground, smelling of soot from a fire. Though they had money, the uncle was parsimonious, and sometimes he would clutch a dollar in his hand for an hour before he finally gave it to the boy.

Alex left work, went into study for the priesthood, and then left to wander the world. He went to university and worked with the anti-poverty league. He got very angry, and said things like: Why don't people give it away!

Then, abused and worn out, he came back and tried to fit in. For the last five years he had taught a course on ethics at the community college. He taught it from September to December and was paid $3500. That seemed to get him through the winter if his uncle helped him. Without his uncle's help there was no telling what would happen.

People - and there are gossips in the world - said that for a man who wanted to live like an ascetic, Alex hoped a little too much for some kind of inheritance. But others said he deserved something from his relationship with his uncle, who treated him too harsh for too long. Others, too, said his uncle would never leave him with nothing, that in the end the uncle had always been there for him.

Tucker had thought of Mrs. Chapman all day. The war as yet had not come. But perhaps it would soon. The highway drifted on below his garage - drifted away forever, to the east; a garage so out of the way the company had taken his pumps from him, and he had to make up his lost revenue by giving deals and working later every week. In the lonely, darkening stretch of country road the light of Poppy Bourque's sawdust truck could be seen rising and falling though the black, heavy trees. He remembered lights like these on a summer night long ago, when his friends and he came home from baseball games. But his friends eventually outgrew him, and he stayed as he was, with, it seemed, no real prospects or future. He called on them to come over, but after a time they had little to say to him, and got married, and his room filled with mementos from his youth, when they were happy together, did not seem to contain them.

He would go and sit with his cousin Amy, for an hour or two, and they would talk about all her plans that seemed nice and innocent. She played the guitar and had a box of CDs and was the kindest of all to him.

Burton wondered what would happen to the children like little Amy if there was a war. Well, who could say? No one wanted to bomb children. Almost every general said, "We are against the killing of women and children," and Burton would say, "Thank God," but then they proceeded to bomb them with great aplomb.

Burton was told by some people that he had to stop being so friendly to children - especially Amy, who they said now had her own boobs - and that many children didn't want him stopping them up on the highway to speak to them as they waited for the bus in the freezing January mornings. That it was a new age, and certainly he had a right to say hello, but there were a lot of mothers and fathers who were suspicious of people like Burton Tucker.

Then the police came one day, and took him aside - a young man and woman with blue uniforms and guns on their belts - and told him he shouldn't pick little girls up and swing them around so their underwear showed. The young female officer looked at him with a triumphant smile - as if all her life she had wanted to say something just like this. He started to cry as he always did, and told these officers he was an attendant at the open-air rink and at the community center dinners, and to prove this he showed them his hat, much like theirs, that said burton on the front.

Later, Markus Paul, the First Nations constable he liked, came in and told him not to worry and that things would turn out in the end, and wasn't the garage a place where everyone gathered, and didn't people look up to him, well there you go.

Last week Burton had been in his garage, and the door was opened and James Chapman came in. He walked now with a game leg and a cane, and his face, which could show almost immediate anger whenever he wanted, was gray. And he didnÕt like dogs. He asked abruptly for the oil to be changed on his truck, and Tucker did so while Chapman waited in the heat of the office. This was Chapman's roadway, a roadway he more or less thought he owned for the last fifty-five years. But the politics and the times had shifted, and he realized he was forgotten. His business was forgotten, his friends were dead. This had made him take to playing pool every weeknight at Brennen's, and having one too many drinks.

He told Burton he would write his great-nephew out of the will. But this was at least the twentieth time he had told Burton this.

"I asked him to bring my truck in and he said that he was too busy, so I've had it and he is gone from my life - he will not be allowed in my house, on my property, or have anything to do with my estate."

He had changed the locks on his doors, and for once he was going to use these locks.

Alex had been a disappointment, Mrs. Chapman had told Burton. She said nothing more than this.

"Oh, Alex has been a terrible disappointment,"she said. "He hates us, you see - that is the only way to think of it - deep, deep down his life has made him hate us. And the fact is that when you hate one person, you hate all mankind. Do you see - the instance that you hate one person, then you hate the world."

Old Chapman's business had failed, and he accused men of stealing, and fired them. He fired the one man who might have helped him keep his company: Sammy Patch. His wife, Muriel, had died, and now he was alone. It was all reckless, and all done within a year, and now his lifetime of work was a memory.

So he brought his truck in to have the oil changed, because his nephew would not.

"He's a ungrateful lad," the old man said, sitting in the office that smelled of gas and wire. "He was a creature left out of the world. Well, who brought him here? I did. Who gave him a name? I did. Who gave him money? Me. Who paid for his education? You are looking at him. Who hired him on again? Sitting here now! But we will see, won't we, Tuck, my boy - we will see what he gets up to - ha! - where will he go now - he's forty years old. Doesn't have no woman, has no kid, has no work, has no nothing. Talks big - anyone can talk big; reads books - anyone can do that; says the world is in bad shape - don't need books to know that -"

Burton said yes as he changed the oil (which was one of three things he knew how to do) that made his hands as black as squid ink, and thought of how Old Chapman had once ruled everything about him in an uncaring way that dull-thinking men have. He was an old man now, he talked with and smelled of the physical respiratory restraint of the old, and one might have the common enough decency to feel some sympathy for him at the end. That so many didnÕt was part of his legacy as well. They talked about him before he got to BrennenÕs tavern, and spoke about him after he left.

"He's a no-good bigot bastard,"Leo Bourque called Old Chapman one day.

"Yes he is,"Poppy Bourque agreed with his delightful, childlike smile - a smile far more childlike than Burton Tucker's, "and sometimes we can be said to be ourselves - and the Indians can be said to be too - and if there was a Dutch family here they could be too. Bigoted, my word. And the Lithuanians, have you ever in your life - and the Spanish and Portuguese, especially their fishermen - and of course one should not forget the Africans."

So how could Leo answer, except to spit and curse?

Alex and Jim Chapman had been warring off and on for twenty years, ever since the boy had left the priesthood under what were called suspicious circumstances, which only enlivened some against him, and so it had finally come to this.

Alex thought he would at least have the house.

That's what he had said to Burton one day last year: "I will never be rich - well, I wouldn't want to be - who would want to be rich - no, not me - but I will at least have the house."

"He won't have the house,"the old man had told Burton last week. "I will burn it before he ever sets foot in it again. I will tear it apart one board at a time before he sets a toe in it - or a toenail, if you ask me. I don't want him close enough to smell the chimney smoke. If he gets close enough to smell the chimney smoke, I will phone the police -"

So Alex lived in a small cabin that used to be the old man's icehouse, off the main shore. And the old man said he was going to kick him out of that. "Any day now - yes, any day -"

After changing the oil and wiping his hand on a piece of paper towel, Tucker did what he always did. He took Old Chapman's money and gave him a complimentary lotto ticket, as advertised on the office door.

The draw had been on Wednesday night, last night, just as it was every week.

Today, after Tucker walked to the garage and cleaned the backroom and took a mouse from the mousetrap near the door, he saw the numbers in the paper. He was going to phone Mr. Chapman, and ask him to see if he had these numbers: 11, 17, 22, 26, 37, 41 - for those were the winning lotto numbers.

Last week Chapman had taken the ticket along with the receipt, and Burton had copied the numbers in his small notebook that hung on a string from the glass counter. Still, he had copied them very hurriedly and might have gotten one or two of them wrong. But by chance if he hadn't, those were the numbers. And they were worth a lot of money. It was now August 10. He'd given out only one other ticket for this draw, to Poppy Bourque. But his numbers didn't come close. So it had to be Mr. Chapman's ticket.

But before he could phone the old man came in again, and asked for a carton of Players cigarettes and some oil for his chain saw.

"I will have to cut my own wood,"he said. He told Burton he wanted to have a cord or two done before he went fishing.

Burton only nodded and smiled. Burton was waiting for Chapman to say he was set, and had won the great prize, but the old man betrayed nothing about the ticket.

The dwindling summer air came through the door. It had been hot all summer - any squalls were soon gone. Just a dry, dead feeling in the air, and the plastic flags that ran up the poles as advertisement lay limp in the sun. Again the old man asked about Alex. Have you seen him, what is he up to, how does he manage to get by - you'd think gosh almighty this and that! Is he going to teach his course this year - what does he teach, have you heard him? Ethics? What is that! Is it about molecules or people -?

Once, when Burton was frightened because he had heard there was going to be a war, and actually started crying though he didn't want to, Mrs. Chapman had smiled and said: "Dear Burton - don't you know we have always been at war?"

"Where?"Burton had asked.

Mrs. Chapman had pointed to her heart.

Perhaps she had been thinking of the war between old Chapman and young.

Excerpted from The Lost Highway by David Adams Richards
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
This item was reviewed in:
Quill & Quire, October 2007
Globe & Mail, November 2007
Globe & Mail, August 2008
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