There are few books that evoke feelings of dread and giddy anticipation at the same time. Even rarer is the writer who is able to consistently wield this elusive talent in a certain way. I’ve only read two writers who could do this: Jack Ketchum and a fellow SHU classmate whose pacing and technique is quite Ketchumesque, although unique in its own right. The first book I read by Ketchum, The Girl Next Door, was a terrible tale. But I couldn’t stop reading to see what would happen next. And there’s a difference between continuing to read because you want to know what happens and continuing because you need to know what happens. I thought the subject matter of The Girl Next Door was what pushed this urge along, but after reading Joyride, I understand it wasn’t simply that. It was the sheer fanaticism in the way Ketchum places words on the paper.
Joyride was a pretty short novel, in comparison to many I’ve read. But in this short venue, the words were so carefully chosen that there were no extras to drag the story along or weigh it down. With each passing sentence, I had the feeling of looking out the rear window of a car travelling at a high speed. You see the road behind you in a blur, and you think you can’t remember what the lines on the highway looked like because they passed so fast. But you know that path is what got you where you are in the journey, and that the lines far gone look just like the ones you’re recently passing and have yet to greet. You hope the road doesn’t run out: at the speed you’re travelling, there is no braking. Blood pounding through veins that seem almost too small to accommodate, you speed on along with the story. You go on this horrific Joyride…willingly.
The premise was quite simple. Wayne Lock witnesses Carole Gardner and Lee Edwards murder Carole’s nasty ex-husband. He decides that since they’ve gone down a road he himself would like to travel, he takes them along for his journey. The title Joyride gave hint of the various journeys detailed in the book. Carole was on a journey to freedom from victimization by men, having first been abused by her father and later by her husband Howard. When it seems the car has stopped for her, with Howard’s murder at her and Lee’s hands, along comes Wayne to apply more torture. Lee Edwards is on his own trip, having been moved enough by his love for Carole to help her make her life easier by killing her ex-husband. After the deed was done, Lee has to assess the road that led him to murder, and decide whether the fall out and possible loss of love with Carole in the wake of their guilt was worth it. Wayne was on a trek through a life of abuse himself. His travel stalled when he figured out he didn’t have the fortitude to follow through with killing Susan, but caught a second wind when he witnessed Carole and Lee giving Howard his freedom from dull, earthly binds. Wayne then figured out his own ride had to be precipitated by his witnessing this act, and that Carole and Lee were his chauffeurs to his final destination. And of course, the victims all made their final crossings from the world of the living to the grand beyond.
The thing that most made these journeys interesting was the way Ketchum crafted the characters. Carole was a sympathetic character from the very beginning, as the reader is drawn into her world of perpetual fear. She is painted as an unfortunate victim, first in childhood and then in her marriage. Carole is strong, but she doesn’t know how strong she is until her and Lee’s act of murder brings her into contact with a menace far worse than Howard, far worse even than her guilt over her actions. Lee is also an understandable character. He has to watch the woman he loves suffer at the hands of a monster, and he seeks to protect her from that life. He’s a hero for his woman, and most of us can relate to wanting a better life for a loved one. Lieutenant Rule is also a well rounded character. Plagued by doubt in his personal life, he’s stringent and efficient in his professional life. He never loses his edge for investigating the crimes that are set before him, even as he melts into a puddle on his personal side, lamenting the loss of the woman and child he loved. Having him attending therapy sessions was a nice little tool, because that vulnerability showed Rule to be a regular person and not a super cop who always caught his man. Susan was also sympathetic, in that she was just a lady who found a man she cared about and entertained marrying and building a life with. She had no idea the man was a monster who would likely kill her someday. Even the minor characters in the book were described with little details that made them more than just names and people in a story. Ketchum gave tiny details about the people and their lives, and these humanizing traits lent more sorrow to their deaths. They seemed like real people.
The crafting of Wayne as a psycho was utterly brilliant. Though our first introduction to Wayne Lock was through the eyes of Susan thinking, “Who is this alien here beside me?” (Ketchum, 11), he seems normal enough. Even his attempt at choking Susan seemed like an ordinary guy who might have been curious about some of the darker sides of sexual practices. It wasn’t immediately obvious that he’d actually tried to kill Susan. Even when we watch him witnessing Carole and Lee’s crime, Wayne seems quite mundane, a little meticulous, but maybe seeking a little more excitement in his life. Then bit by bit, we begin to see that he’s stranger than originally thought. Especially once he’s placed in the mirror of Carole and Lee as a fellow murderer. They all have committed the same crime, however, Carole and Lee did it out of protection from someone who had proven himself powerful and practically unstoppable. Wayne murders just to see how it feels. And his victims are random, none in the beginning having done him the slightest ill. The unwinding of his mental strings is shown slowly and deliberately and we suddenly see that Wayne never was quite as ordinary as first portrayed. His writing of perceived transgressions in a notebook was an especially nice touch. Journaling gone wild…who does that?
Wayne’s “RETAL” was another of the things I most enjoyed about the book. Ketchum has an enviable way of making plays on words that immediately strike the reader. Before reading his explanation of the use of “RETAL”, I thought this was an indicator of Wayne’s instability despite his appearances. I read it as “LATER” spelled backwards, with each note being a promise to punish each transgression later, once he figured out his true calling. The naming of the officer of the law “Rule” was another. This was especially nice when Rule broke the rules at the end and let Carole go, after providing her with an alibi. Also, during the scene with the two students, we see Wayne attack the boy and the blow “blinding all that vision” (Ketchum, 174). Not only had Wayne obliterated the boy’s future, but he effectively cut off his physical sight when he killed him. The most compelling play on words was the title itself. Joyride not only hinted at the passages of the characters, but it was an interesting excursion: joyous for the writer in me for the sheer detail and technique and painful entertainment for the reader in me that couldn’t pull away from the wreckage of the vehicle.
Ketchum, Jack. Joyride. New York: Dorchester Publishing, 2010. Print.