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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Road Train

Though the term is more familiar in Australia, a road train (or roadtrain) is a truck pulling two or more trailers in tandem. Here, in this effective opening, the road train becomes a source of anxiety and terror looming on the wavering horizon, "floating toward us above a hot blue lake across the road"—like one of those B-movie monsters from the 1950s, The Blob or Empire of the Ants. No longer simply a conveyance transporting innocent merchandise from point A to point B, here the road train becomes Yeats' "vast image " arising out of the desert sand . . . moving its slow thighs. . .slouch[ing] toward Bethlehem to be born." The narrator finds it scary, and so do we.

In fact the truck is only a truck—but still a source of fear and anxiety as it bears down on the protagonist in her car "like a boat with a cresting bow wave ahead of it." We are in Australia, somewhere in the outback, presumably. As one of the road train's trailers swings over the double white line the narrator braces herself for the collision, for "the smashing, shrieking, grinding impact of a side-swipe"—which, of course, doesn't come.

Instead of being smashed to death, the narrator is jolted into the past, into a memory of another violent disaster. Evocations of fire, screaming, of hot metal ticking, "blood oozing," of sirens wailing and emergency lights flashing off of buildings. The memory is vague but vivid. We learn that someone very close to the narrator—Simon, possibly the narrator's husband—died in "the crash."

Then the flashback ends and we return to that wavering stretch of highway—the same road, apparently, where Simon met his fate a year earlier. She is traveling from Perth to Sydney, a distance of over 4,000 kilometers, over forty hours, traveling "with Alice [her daughter?], [her] bags, and the last bits [of her life] in her car." The rest of her belongings are in the hands of "the removalist"—the Australian term for a moving contractor.

Though little is spelled out, much is conveyed in this efficient opening page: a mother whose life has been shattered by tragedy, hoping to leave that tragedy behind her and begin a new life. Will she make it? The road itself becomes a hazard, a portent—a symbol for the journey that has just begun, and which with its mirages and hazards is bound to be treacherous.


  1. Peter,
    I was thrilled with your comments. You picked up so many things from that piece - most of which are elements in the story ahead. The road is the highway between West and East and crosses the vast Nullarbor Plain. I am trying to create a sense of the road and the landscape being dominant but as remote and indifferent to the human strife as we are to an ant track across our path. And you have suggested that I've got some way towards doing that. I'm very pleased.

    One question that arose as a result of the comments you posted for others was whether I had used too many analogies (like a boat, bush seemed to be streaming past) and whether I should pare it down more. I am keen to write sparingly.

    Thanks again. J

  2. I wasn’t bothered by the mixed metaphors, but since you are you might reconcile “monster” and “boat” in first paragraph (boat = dragon at edge of world).

  3. Hmmm - a very useful suggestion. I'll work on that. J