CJ Box: THE HIGHWAY: What kind of sick mind…?

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In a one-star review one reader said he didn’t care about all the critical acclaim for the author. He said,  “…I still don’t want to fill my heart and head with these products of a sick mind.”

The comments from pre-release reviews of CJ Box’s THE HIGHWAY have been overwhelmingly positive though there has been an undercurrent of discomfort, sometimes anger, from both long-time Box fans and those reading him for the first time. With this book, far more than his others, people love it or hate it, and there’s not much in between.  The balance is heavily on the “love it” side, but there is an intensity and consistency to the negative points of view that bear consideration.

THE HIGHWAY is based on actual events, dozens, maybe hundreds, of unsolved abductions, disappearances, and murders of women, many, but not all, prostitutes. That’s what this book is about. If you want lighter, but still excellent fare, check out stories that feature Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot.

THE HIGHWAY, from the first page to the last, is intense and dark, at least compared Box’s Joe Pickett series, as well as his other standalones. It’s not dark compared to Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, or Ross MacDonald’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but next to the stories of Joe and Mary Beth and their girls, with best friend/loose cannon Nate Romanowski in a sidecar, this one is as black and frightening as Wyoming wilderness on a moonless night.

Part of the reason for the grimness is that you are led into the story by one of Box’s most troubled and complex protagonists, a lawman some consider to be a “borderline psychopath” himself, Cody Hoyt. Cody first appeared in THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOODBYE, and reappeared in BACK OF BEYOND. He is a fired, disgraced (in some eyes) cop, who consistently manages to do the right thing, and just as consistently manages to do it in the wrong way. He has a gift for making almost everyone on both sides of the deal upset with him. He’s your friend from high school or college that you loved being around even though every time you got in a car with him you knew two things: it would be an adventure; and you were probably going to get into trouble, maybe a lot of trouble.

CJ Box has taken fictional fee simple title to a good portion of the American West, the same way Tony Hillerman did the Big Rez, Raymond Chandler did post-depression Los Angeles, and John D. MacDonald did South Florida. THE HIGHWAY, however, though set in Wyoming and Montana, does not fit a restricted geography. It jumps the rail and busts the barricades of single locale. The true location of THE HIGHWAY is not a couple of Western states, it is America, broad and deep, as defined by that endless center-striped ribbon of road that is an organism unto itself. The American highway, perhaps more than any other physical feature of the continent, including the Rockies, the mighty Mississippi, the Great Plains, (I know, queue soundtrack: “Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies…”) embodies our culture. This man-made tentacle calibrates American consciousness like nothing else. From Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, which plays through Cheyenne, to Stirling Silliphant’s ROUTE 66, to THELMA AND LOUISE, and the literally countless chase and road movies, TV shows, and films, this is us. THE HIGHWAY is America.

Box has fine-tuned his best-selling Pickett series to such a degree he could shift to overdrive and cruise as long as he wanted. He has chosen not to do that, challenging both his readers and himself by taking on narrative tasks that few, if any, other writers are up to. He does it notably in the Pickett book, COLD WIND, and he does it in spades in THE HIGHWAY. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to talk about how he does it in either without spilling a barrel of spoilers. But I will say this. Every time you think you know where the story is going, you are probably wrong; and, though I have read hundreds of crime fiction novels, there came a point deep in the tale at which my jaw dropped and I quit breathing for a moment. I was stunned in a way I don’t remember, ever, at least not since the scene in THE EXORCIST in which Linda Blair’s head did a three-sixty. What happened in THE HIGHWAY can’t happen in a story like this. But it did.

What is not different from Box’s other books is the voice, the pace, the rhythm, the power of the language, the passion. As sure as the night is dark, you will be hooked within a page or two. It is a tale that keeps on telling because even when you are done with it, it will not be done with you. It will come back to you on lonely roads running through an opaque night when the needle’s on empty and the only pumps are at a faded truck stop with flickering neons, and a lot that’s empty except for a single tractor-trailer, idling in blackness. The idea of filling up at a place like that will be about as appealing as spending a night at the Bates Motel.

Oh, and for the record, the introductory excerpt was from a review of THE COLLECTED WORKS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE.

Dad’s Flag: What It Means To Be an American

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This is the flag that was presented to my mother following my father’s memorial service. It was presented by a young corporal in dress uniform from the honor guard. His hands were shaking, and there were tears in his eyes.

During World War II, my father served primarily in North Africa and Italy. Those years were arguably the most significant of his ninety-five, yet he seldom spoke about them. Only in his last year, my mother said, did he begin to talk about that time. One of the things he did say was that never did a day go by when he didn’t think about it.

My father was distant, non-communicative by nature. Then came Vietnam, and it got worse. We barely spoke for a decade. I was an activist. One day my mother was driving to the school where she taught first grade, listening to the radio, when a story came on about a major anti-war demonstration at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. According to the radio, I was the one who organized it. That wasn’t entirely accurate. I just happened to be the spokesperson.

My father was a civil service construction inspector. Among other things, he inspected missile silos. He had a high security clearance. When the FBI investigated me, as they did thousands who were vocal in their criticism of the War in Vietnam, they interviewed him. I’ve always wondered what he said. If I file an FOI request, I might be able to find out.

As with most of his generation, my father could not comprehend the “anti-Americanism” of my generation. How could we debase their sacrifice? What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?

Conversely, my generation could not comprehend the willingness of his generation to support what we saw as a quickstep toward totalitarianism and repression. Watergate was the clincher. For an American president to attempt to subvert the electoral process was vile. Just about anything else you could get away with, including the assassination of foreign leaders, but to try to undercut a presidential election was beyond the pale. I still don’t think Nixon should have been pardoned. What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?

On the idea that  you should simply do what your government tells you and shut up, he never backed down. Neither did I. I believed, and still do, in the responsibility of the individual to stand in the way of wrong, as his generation had done in the trenches of Europe. I believe in that even when the perpetrator of the wrong is the U.S. government. He and I never agreed about that. We never even agreed to disagree. Eventually, however, we did put all that to the side and focus on things we could agree on. Like the Denver Broncos. Thank God for the NFL. Thank God for John Elway.

My father and I never came to an agreement on what it means to be an American. And that, for anyone who doesn’t know, is exactly what it means to be an American.

Henry David Thoreau, Edward Snowden: On Heroes, Traitors and Cowards

ON THE DUTY OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE is one of the seminal essays in the history of the United States. We are Americans, and we do things a certain way. Our government, and the rules and actions and regulations or our government are always subject to scrutiny, and, in certain cases, rejection. We are an independent lot. That is a major reason for our success as a nation. Rebelliousness is a part of our national character. How could it not be since we were born of a rebellion known as the American Revolution. Irreverence is our calling card, and our rejection of rules and convention is the means by which we innovate, invent, alter paradigms and change the world, in science, art technology, music, everything. But we rebel in a certain way.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson went to the jail to get Thoreau out after he had been incarcerated for refusing to pay a tax he considered unjust, Emerson said, “Henry David, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “What are you doing out there?” The point is that the American spirit of Civil Disobedience requires that we accept responsibility for the rule of law. If we are going to break the law, we face the consequences. Those who don’t are both cowards and criminals. Cowards run. Traitors go to the enemy. Heroes accept responsibility and put their life in the way of wrong, even if it is their government committing the wrong.

During the Vietnam War, which was one of the most destructive and divisive events in our history, there was a level of resistance that began at a grass roots level and worked its way  to the top. It was a cruel, unjustified, and misdirected war started by politicians waving ideologies, and finally stopped by the people themselves. That’s never happened before and probably never will again. A discussion of that war is not a blog, it’s a hundred blogs. But that history has been written many times over and there is no need to repeat it here. During that era a young man of draft age had three main alternatives if drafted. Serve in the armed forces, refuse to serve and stay home and face the consequences, or go to Canada, or some other country that would provide safe harbor. Your choice said a lot about you.

I will not mention Edward Snowden in the same paragraph with those above. He is arrogant, a narcissist, and a coward. I believe he would and did jeopardize the safety of this country to satisfy his own ego. I believe he thought he was going to be hailed as a hero. This is the heart of the matter: Heroes don’t run. Cowards and traitors do.

Is Colorado burning?

You better believe it. Fires on three sides of Colorado Springs, major fire in Black Forest, over 8,000 acres burned. And it’s not even Juneteenth, yet. It’s going to get worse. Much worse. Cheyenne Mountain through the smoke haze. The valley smells like barbecue.

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