Red Asphalt by Scott Cherney

Meet Calvin Wheeler – thirtysomething and unhappily married to Karen, his childhood sweetheart, who in Chapter 1 reminds him that the proper name for his unsightly cold sore is “herpes”. A former actor, one-time traffic school instructor, and presently a courier for Healthfirst clinical laboratories, Calvin’s day consists of driving around Stockton, CA and environs making deliveries and pickups at various labs, hospitals and doctors’ offices.

Calvin hates his job and hates his colleagues even more: they’re all fat, stupid, ass-kissing, job-stealing or, in one case, afflicted with an hilarious speech impediment. Calvin amuses himself with violent road-rage fantasies, listening to ‘The Collection’ (his eclectic set of driving tapes), and by making ‘calls’ to an imaginary talkback program – the Don Olsen Show on KGY News Talk Radio – where Don (a kind of Super-ego) critiques Calvin’s life. And then there’s Sarah, the beautiful young nurse who brightens Calvin’s afternoon visits to Dr Wilkins’ office in Pine Grove. Sarah is Calvin’s soul mate, even if she doesn’t know it yet. She’s going to share his life.

And what a life it will be. For Calvin isn’t just a courier, he’s a writer. Dragged along by Karen one year to the Bay Area’s annual Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Calvin conceived of his masterwork: a colossal fantasy epic entitled ABRACADABRA. In its vast scope and universal appeal it promises to be a kind of Lord of the Rings for the new millennium. Or so Calvin hopes. Seven years in the planning, he has boxes of notes, whole folders of ideas, concepts, characters and plot points, even designs for the inevitable merchandising tie-ins. But he doesn’t have an ending. He doesn’t even have a first draft, if he’s honest. But he’ll start writing soon, if he can just find a little creative space.

Calvin is a born fantasist, soothing difficulty and disappointment with dreams of retribution. Held in this mundane-but-hopeful stasis, his life might be tolerable. But the centre cannot hold. His marriage is ending, his job is on the line, and his widowed mother has shacked up with an abusive former dockworker on disability. When even ABRACADABRA starts to slip from his grasp, Calvin finally crosses over. Fantasy and reality begin to commingle, with violent consequences for everyone…

Red Asphalt borrows its title from a series of videos produced by the California Highway Patrol. I was understandably disappointed to discover they aren’t actually a CSI-style spin off from the sorely missed late-70s TV series CHiPs, but rather a set of gory instructional films designed to terrify teens into driving more safely. It’s an apt choice for a novel that’s both funny and frightening but not as effective as it might have been.

This is a novel of competing energies: the desire to amuse, to thrill, and to explore the inner workings of a collapsing mind. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals (Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club manages it), but it’s a strange combination that Cherney doesn’t pull off. He calls this a “thriller”, but it doesn’t read like one (up until Chapter 22 of 27, at least). For the bulk of the novel there is nothing from the thriller’s stock-in-trade: no suspense, no compelling action, no cliff-hangers, no red herrings, no villain, no ticking clock, no goal. It’s structured more like a novel of psychological realism, charting Calvin’s mental disintegration from the inside. That’s an appealing branch of fiction, with Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho being two of the better known examples. But the persistent comic tone prevents Red Asphalt moving very far in their direction. Cherney clearly loves the laughs and can’t help going for them. A natural comedian, his style is irrepressibly humorous. A good eighty percent of this novel is given over to comedy: specifically Calvin’s amusing and cliché-ridden monologue, focusing mainly on the hideousness of other people (mostly women). Calvin is funny. But psychological collapse isn’t, and the relentless and largely misogynistic joking seems at odds with the underlying theme.

And what is that theme? Lurking beneath the guffaws, I think, is a serious argument about creativity. Calvin finds himself in a predicament no doubt familiar to many aspiring writers: crushed by a personal and professional life that gets in the way of the masterpiece; or, more commonly, using the planned masterpiece as the comforting one-day-I’ll fantasy, a ‘dream sanctuary’ that makes the present life more bearable, with the added benefit of endlessly deferring the real attempt at writing and thereby any possibility of failure. At one point, Calvin says: “Without magic, there is nothing.” But as his life crumbles around him, Calvin concludes that “magic” is nothing more than the lies he has told himself to get by. If you never risk anything to follow your dreams, if you never make that choice, inaction becomes a choice in itself. And the price you pay is everything.

That’s a strong theme for a novel, so it’s a pity this isn’t a more coherent one. The comedy of the first two-thirds left me only mildly amused. The action and violence of the final act were exciting but didn’t amount to much. Where the novel does shine is in the turn: at Chapter 21, it makes a sharp left from one mode into the other, traversing a short patch of smooth, jet-black realism that is not only well expressed but beautifully dramatized in two sequences that make me think Cherney has untapped potential as a screenwriter. Coming home to an empty house, Calvin collapses in front of the TV only to be confronted with a monstrous truth about his creative work. Staggering out into the night, he falls into the kind of humiliating confrontation fate seems to save up for those moments in which we’re at our most vulnerable. It’s perfect. When Cherney ditches the wisecracks and constructs a sequence with resonant emotional depth and darkly comic pathos, it works brilliantly. This brief respite was the high-point of the novel for me, the essence of Cherney’s story and the distillation of the things I suspect he’s actually most interested in: self-deception and indolence; the frustration of our powerlessness in the face of other people’s stupidity; the apparent injustice of unmet expectations; the agonies of creativity; and those cauterizing moments when fantasy and reality collide.

These are rich veins of humour that Cherney could tap in future work. It’s humour of a much more subtle and sophisticated kind – along the lines of Rick Moody or Will Self – than the broad attacks and snide one-liners he has Calvin deliver here. But Cherney might be up to it. In his first novel’s finer moments, he clearly demonstrates two qualities that, for me, make the best comedy and the best literature endure: insight and empathy. I look forward to seeing more of them next time around.