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Thursday, 18 September 2014

FFB - Expressway

Elleston Trevor (1920-1995) wrote Expressway as Howard North (1973). This version was released under his own name, 1975 (he changed his name from Trevor Dudley-Smith); he was British, lived in France and Spain and finally settled in Arizona. 

Trevor used quite a variety of pennames – see this site for a listing - - such as Adam Hall, Simon Rattray, Roger Fitzalan, Mansell Black, Trevor Burgess, Warwick Scott, Caesar Smith and Lesley Stone.

Expressway is a documentary novel in the same vein as Arthur Hailey’s Airport and Hotel, as the cover of my version says. Mainly omniscient in point of view, it still works in a strong cinematic sense. The story is about the holiday weekend of 3-5 July on and around the New York - New Jersey Parkway, early 1970s.

It’s about those who drive and ride in vehicles and it’s also about the cars themselves. In the pearl-finish Cougar, Walt and Carol Amberton can’t talk about the alcohol that’s destroying them. In the black Cadillac, the sinister Mr Solo is ‘cruising, searching, waiting to see at first-hand a fatal accident’. In the Buick Riviera, Dr Brett Hagen is trying to find his teenage daughter, Tracy, and her companion, a man old enough to be her father. In the Chrysler Newport, Rod Gould and Nat Renatus ‘start the weekend with murder and bring death along with them.’ Then there’s the married couple, Floyd and Sue, expecting their first baby any week now; and Erica, running away from her husband Craig, and highway cop Lieutenant Frank Ingram and his paramedic wife Debby, whose lives are not improved by the officious unhelpful interference of Captain Darrow… Suspense, tension and action in a jam-packed holiday weekend.

Figures are now out of date, naturally, but the carnage is still shocking. ‘… on the Fourth of July holiday last year the national figures for death on the road reached a new peak at 917, while more than 36,000 persons were injured…’ It begins with an overview of the area and homes in on Patrolman Nolan who is due to complete his shift – until he stumbles upon a couple of drug-dealers (Rod and Nat) and he’s killed by Nat; Rod is wounded by Nolan. A neat little framing device is the young boy Jimmy, who is a car-spotter, munching on an apple.

Trevor has a good eye for detail. And in certain scenes we can discern the fast pace of his alter ego Adam Hall (Quiller books), viz: ‘Only when something goes wrong are you brought to realize how fast you are moving at a mile per minute but there’s no time to think about what you are learning too quickly and too late, because there’s a rocking motion and the scene dips as the brakes bite and then the world goes wild and great forces rise to hurl you bodily through tumult and you know that this is not you any longer, the you to whom nothing could happen, nothing terrible, nothing so unimaginably terrible as this.’ Breathless, yet powerful and so indelibly true.

Jimmy’s apple is one subtle leitmotif; another is the Venus 1000 car – advertised ‘as lithe, compliant, trembling under your touch’. Walt is the salesman who thought up that sexist spiel, before he succumbed to liquor. And another is the moths in the night air… when, a page later, after Carol worries about her alcoholic husband Walt: ‘For some reason they always go faster the nearer they go to the flame, spinning faster and faster till they touch; but what about self-preservation, aren’t all living creatures supposed to know when they’re in danger? Can’t they feel the heat growing as they circle closer? Surely they do. Then why can’t they stop?’ And of course her allusion relates to Walt’s alcoholic descent, not the moths. Later, she’s in the car knowing Walt has imbibed and ‘can only sit here feeling the refined brand of fear that is experienced by the trapped animal.’ This is an excellent devastating exposal of alcoholism, right up there with Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

Cop-killer Nat got a piece of grit in his eye and it troubled him. This symbolizes the irritation of guilt and fear. A little later, ‘Rod watched his friend, his thin and dangerous friend, whose nerve had gone because he’d done it before but never to a city cop. Nat was finished. He’d never get his style back, even if he beat this rap and set up somewhere safe, because the Nolan killing had changed everything and a bit of it had spun off and got inside Nat, just like Nolan’s bullet had got inside Rod himself.

‘ “It’s out,” Nat said, “I got it out.” [Referring to the grit].

‘No, Rod thought, you never will.’

Although I enjoyed Arthur Hailey’s books Hotel, Wheels, Airport and Overload etc, I find it baffling that they are still in print while this fine writer’s Expressway isn’t.
[If you're interested in the insight into a writer, you might try a memoire about Elleston Trevor by his wife, Bury Him Among Kings. Intimate Glimpses into the Life and Work of Elleston Trevor by Chaille Trevor (2012). It's a worthwhile e-book.]



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