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Highway 28 West

It’s time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews “Highway 28 West” by Joe Taylor.

Joe Taylor, editor of offbeat novels at Livingston Press, practices what he preaches. This short novel, “Highway 28 West,” his thirteenth book, is odd, intriguing, unpredictable, part horror story, part allegory. Set, as one might expect, on and near a road leading out of Demopolis, Alabama, most of the novel is presented as a screenplay. The main character, named Preacher, although he is not one, is standing on a picnic table talking to a motley crowd. The crowd responds to his story, not collectively, like a Greek chorus but individually, usually rudely. In the crowd are a cranky woman, an older man, a rude teenage boy, and Lizzie, a girl poet who bursts out from time to time with four lines of rhyming couplets. Occasionally, a somewhat conventional omniscient narrator steps in and carries the narrative forward.

The tale itself is a series of adventures Preacher has had, dealing mostly with death, dead bodies, and sometimes the mysteries of time. For example: When his car breaks down Preacher walks to a nearby house to make a phone call. At the home, which is explicitly described as manufactured, the husband goes into the bathroom to get drunk, the wife seduces Preacher for exactly 22 minutes and then throws him out, unsatisfied. “Ain’t no real men these days,” she says. As Preacher is walking away, he stops at another house where he is invited in for coffee and learns that the husband and son in that home are extremely ill. The wife in that house thinks Preacher is an angel. She says “maybe you were a messenger from God, come to save my boy and my husband. They’re awful sick.” There is a shotgun blast from the first house, no real surprise there. The sick husband and son die too.

Preacher doesn’t kill anyone, but he is some kind of angel of death. Over the next few weeks, we are told, he finds bodies everywhere: a dead girl by the railroad tracks, a girl drowned in a car after a flood, a “bled-out man in an old barn staring up at an empty hayloft,” Preacher’s own father dead in a rocking chair, a man drowned in Lake Blue and a “little boy on [a] bike with training wheels who’d waved at Preacher until the car behind ran over his bike and him.”

It seems that Highway 28 may be the highway to heaven or the highway to hell. Either way, Lizzie the girl poet responds:

“Bones in your coffee,

Blood in your wine,

Drink ’em up fast,

You don’t got much time.”

In the course of things we are shown that time itself is unsteady and of course subjective. Some events take forever, some go by “in a New York minute.” Either way, as we have been reminded, all the people and all the objects in this world, and in this novel do turn to dust.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.