Monday, September 10, 2012

Roads, Etc.....

Here in Ottawa, I have been reading and hearing a lot about roads lately.

Last week, September 4th to be precise, a section of highway just east of Ottawa proper, on Highway 174, suddenly collapsed, producing a "sinkhole", reckoned to be about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Not your average puddle. A driver moving along on the road saw what he thought was a large dark patch of new pavement. Too late, he realised there was a yawning chasm in the road, and his car went straight into it.

                       A car is seen after falling into a hole on the Highway 174 off-ramp at Jeanne D'arc Boulevard in this handout photo, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. Fire officials in Ottawa say a driver suffered minor injuries after a car went into a sinkhole on Tuesday afternoon.

In the aftermath - because the driver, the lone occupant of the Hyundai Accent, a subcompact vehicle, was not injured - the whole affair took on a vaguely comic aspect. The car, according to the press reports, went "headlights first into the hole, leaving (the driver) suspended by his seatbelt. Only the car's back bumper showed above the rim of the chasm..." The writer of the story even made reference to the accident scene looking "sort of like the cars in Hollywood movies about earthquakes." That seemed to give the affair a semi-fictional touch.

Admittedly, this has nothing in particular to do with the writing of mystery fiction; apart from the ongoing mystery that Ottawa's, and Ontario's, infrastructure can have deteriorated so badly that a section of a modern highway can suddenly disappear. It did catch my attention, partly because I had driven along that particular stretch of highway the previous week, in my spanking new Mustang. Had my car been the one plunged "headlights-first" into the chasm, I would have seen nothing funny about it at all. And I might not be here at the keyboard writing about it.

The second "road" reference came about a few days later when I heard on the radio - the CBC, that is, for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, pale cousin of the BBC, which is also known in the UK as "Auntie" - that the annual Canadian film extravaganza in Toronto was underway. TIFF, that is. For "Toronto International Film Festival". Which the radio told me has now become one of the largest and most prestigious film festivals going. Many of the BIG NAMES were there, I was told. The radio and TV announcers and commentators were almost beside themselves with excitement. I managed to contain my own.

(I do love films, though, and I will look forward to the pick of the crop when they finally make it to Ottawa. Assuming the whole shebang does not plunge into a sinkhole on the 401, or some other roadway that connects Toronto with Ottawa.)

One bit of news from TIFF did catch my attention. One of the films that was shown this year at TIFF is On The Road, based the famous 1950's novel by Jack Kerouac. (The film actually premiered on May 23 at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The date for the TIFF showing was September 6.)


I wish I could write that I read that novel decades ago, and that it had a large effect on my own development as a writer. Slightly red-faced, I have to admit that I have not read it. I started it once, but didn't get very far into it before starting another book - which I probably did not finish either. I am afraid that my reading is as haphazard as my writing sometimes is. But I likely will see the film someday. Although given my curmudgeonly attitude towards theatre audiences, I will likely wait for the DVD to appear.

Wikipedia tells me that a film version of On The Road has been in the works since about 1957, when Kerouac wrote a letter to Marlon Brando suggesting that Brando would play Dean Moriarty, and Kerouac himself would play Sal Paradise. Obviously that did not happen. There were a number of subsequent attempts to make the film, including one in the late 90's or early 2000's, with Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt. That one I really would like to have seen.

The principal cast members this time around are Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams. Francis Ford Coppola is the producer; the Brazilian director, Walter Salles - of Motorcycle Diaries fame- directed.

Unhappily, Wikipedia also tells me that early reviews of the film were "mixed or negative". Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 40% rating; which is not very good.

So, on to another "road" reference. And this one will have something to do with crime and criminality.

On September 7th, The New York Times Book Review had a piece by Marilyn Stasio on a book by Ginger Strand: Killer On The Road - Violence And The American Interstate. Stasio's review starts with the provocative line, "What would highway killers do without highways?" That's not a question that would ever have occurred to me to ask. But a moment's reflection suggests that it is more than apt.

When I thought about highways at all, and American Interstate Highways in particular, my too-often mundane imagination would conjure up the image of the early 1960's TV series, Route 66, with Martin Milner (Tod Stiles) and George Maharis (Buz Murdock), tooling across the USA in their Corvette convertible. (Although few of the episodes actually involved the real Route 66; and two were filmed in Canada.)

                                    Route 66

The TV-induced sense of adventure and romance associated with the "open road" was, according to Strand, in harsh conflict with the reality. In 1958, when the first stretch of highway was still under construction, America's first highway serial killer, 19-year old Charles Starkweather - with one murder already to his discredit - climbed into his second-hand Ford with his 14-year old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, and hit the road. Their killing spree started in Nebraska and ended in Wyoming. When it was over 10 people were dead.


Starkweather and his girlfriend were captured on January 29, 1958; their killing spree had started on January 21 when Starkweather killed Fugate's parents and their 2-year old daughter. Starkweather was executed in the electric chair on June 25, 1959. Fugate served 18 years in prison.

Strand draws a parallel between what Stasio calls the "inexorable advance of the Interstate System and the proliferation of killers who were pathologically stimulated by that long open road". Arguably, the new highways enabled the "swift and anonymous mobility conducive to criminal behavior". Strand writes that "The highway killer, like the train robber, the gangster and the mobster before him, has entered the cast of American outlaws." In 1983, the U.S. Justice Department estimated that between 30 and 35 "free-range" highway killers were claiming 4,000 victims a year. Of course, no one knows how accurate - or inaccurate - that estimate might be.

Food for late-night thought, though; especially if one is contemplating a driving holiday on the Interstate.


Charlotte Hinger said...

And then there's Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning The Road.

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