Expressway by Howard North

Expressway - Howard North

Howard North was a one-time-use pseudonym of Elleston Trevor, who is probably best known for his Quiller series, written under the name Adam Hall. This is my first time reading any of his novels, so I had no real expectations going in.

This book is distinctive in that it does not have a single main character, or even a couple or a small group of main characters; instead, it has about 21 characters whose thoughts we get to hear, and who mainly appear in pairs, and a lot more who may only appear in a single scene, or infrequently. This is a style choice that may not appeal to everyone, and it does take some getting used to. It made for a slower than usual read for me, since sometimes you only stay with a character or group for a paragraph or two, and almost never longer than a few pages at a time, and the narration is also interspersed with snatches from car radios and police scanners.

I thought this was a good novel, but not necessarily great, because I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to most of the characters until near the end, and in varying degrees; to some of them I still had almost no connection at the end. We get a sort of play-by-play of these characters’ Fourth of July weekend, and it is one that most of them will never forget, and in many cases has led them to grow and change how they interact with those close to them.

I guess you could call this a slice of life piece, and now, more than 40 years after its publication, it serves as a representation of what American life was like in the early 70s. Examples: in every case where there is a married couple in a car, the man is always driving, and this is never questioned or remarked on; seat belts still did not come standard in all cars; you could actually get arrested for cross-dressing; and of course the obvious, no cell phones, but all you had to do was turn around to find a pay phone.

I was a little afraid going in that this book would disappoint, which is sometime the case when an author tries writing in a new genre, or in this case is genre-less, or what the bookstores call “literature,” but I was pleasantly surprised. The only think that bothered me was when, a couple times, the writing got, I thought, unnecessarily technical, like talking about a post-op patient’s vital signs, or discussing legal technicalities, but luckily these were few and far between, and it wasn’t enough to bog the narrative down too much with details. You do get the feeling that he was anything but lazy when it came to research, though. Trevor was born in the UK, and while he moved to the US at age 26, it still seems an odd choice to write a novel set in New Jersey, and during the 4th of July weekend, but I couldn’t tell from the writing that he was British. Now I just hope that the rest of his books live up to the standard set by this one.