Book review: State Highway One by Sam Coley

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Home.

For many people, it’s an almost physical concept, an idyll in an often-unwelcoming world where the people who love them and who have their back provide respite from the contrary vicissitudes of life.

But for others like Aucklander Alex Preston, the protagonist of Sam Coley’s mesmerisingly-evocative State Highway One, it is an elusive idea, something that ostensibly sits within his grasp in the form of often-absent, emotionally-neglectful filmmaking celebrity parents Daniel and Marie Preston and twin sister Amy (with whom he “enjoys” what he terms a Cold War-level of love-hate enmity) but which in practice is far from something he can call his own.

Struggling throughout his life to know where he fits in, and unable to share intimate details of his life such as his homosexuality, Alex flees his hometown the first chance he gets, taking up a marketing intern position at a high-powered, hard-working/hard-playing firm in Dubai who provide a home of sorts for a twenty-year-old desperately in need of one.

Any sense of belonging is ripped to shreds, however, when he receives word that his parents have died in a car accident, prompting a desperate pell-mell dash home to be with an injured Amy and to see if it possible to rescue something from the emotional trainwreck that is his flawed upbringing and ailing adulthood.

“They say you can never go home again, except here I am at nine in the morning, still a bit drunk, still in the suit I wore yesterday, gunning one-forty up State Highway One, headed north, headed for the Cape, home again and getting away. Auckland is four hours away, three hundred kilometres and counting. My sister is next to me, in matching black, teeth clamped around the end of a cigarette she hasn’t quite summoned the energy to light.

Our parents would be so proud.” (P. 1)

Coley wastes no time plunging into the maelstrom of emotions that this wholly traumatic event unleashes in Alex, a young queer man who wears tailored suits and lives in a luxury apartment but who isn’t terribly fond of who he is or what life has brought him.

The grief that resonates through State Highway One like an existential shockwave isn’t even really for the loss of his parents; Alex loved his parents, sure, but so far away from him were they even when he lived with them – a loose concept since they were away so often, he and Amy essentially raising themselves – but rather, and this is in common with many people for whom grief is a fiendishly complex thing with no easy explanation and a maddeningly elusive solution, for what he lost by their emotional neglect and poorly-realised sense of home and family.

He never got to run away to Europe or university with best friend and object of his first love, Henry; nor did he have the surety of parents who had his back and gave him the support he needed until he could stand on his own two feet.

Nor any strong sense of who he is and what he wants from life.

What Alex is really mourning is a lost sense of self, one so corrupted, messy and unknown that not even a high-flying job and a glamourous, if exhausting lifestyle, could cover up the gaping holes in his psyche.

Holes that grief is rapidly turning into massive, ill-judged and aggressively destructive chasms.

Sam Coley (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

State Highway One begins with Alex barrelling down the main road that runs from the top of New Zealand at Cape Reinga right to its very bottom in Stewart Island / Rakiura, Amy in the passenger seat, as he seeks to get as far away from the family home as he can, all while satisfying Amy’s need to drive, just drive.

It’s a road trip driven by a maelstrom of pain and grievous loss, and so consequently some poor decisions are made, driven in the main by Amy’s much-articulated need to just keep going, guided by jagged emotions and a flight response on grief-powered overdrive. (Alex fights her urging to take this trip at first before acquiescing, as he always does, with his strong-willed sister.)

Road trips, of course, tend to lead at some point or another to some deep and meaningful conversations, and Alex and Amy try to have them but neither one can fully explain what it is they want from a parent-less life, each other or themselves.

Coley has crafted a masterful exploration of a person under immense duress with Alex grappling with his parents’ death, gaping deficits in his life and sense of self and a palpable emptiness that comes crashing into the open without booze, sex and 120-hour work weeks to hide it away.

The novel comes alive not simply with a vivid, unputdownable narrative that surges ahead, much like the car in which they travel (though it is, in many ways, as broken and seemingly beyond repairs as its occupants), but characters who feel frantically, hilariously, sadly alive.

“The air feels dense around me, thick and cold and wet, not helped by the chill of that wind that’s picking up, freezing down, to remind me that I’m not supposed to be here. I can’t be here anymore. There’s a crushing feeling inside me, like sadness is coming in from all sides to suffocate me and anger is pushing back with both hands. I’d be sad if only I could stop being so fucking mad. This little city is like the physical manifestation of my parents’ absence.” (PP. 216-217)

If you have ever grappled with soul-searing, happiness-eviscerating grief, you will find much with which to identify in State Highway One.

Coley’s debut novel, which came about as a result of him winning the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers, is luminously evocative and arrestingly-involving in the way it depicts the many and varied ways we respond to grief.

It is also pleasingly nuanced, acknowledging that grief and loss are often lifelong companions, borne of both damagingly ongoing and seismically sudden events, which Alex must contend with on his likely ill-advised but psychically-necessary race race to the very end of New Zealand, and in many respects, himself.

State Highway One is a brilliant, deeply-moving and emotionally intimate book, a deep dive into how one person – while Amy is along for the ride (quite literally) it is on prodigal son Alex that the focus rests and around which the storyline ultimately revolves – copes with grief so powerful and consuming it leads him to act quite out of character even as he inadvertently comes to grip with what that character actually is, away from self-lies, distractions and geographical separation.

But it is also a rich and poignant look, brought alive by writing so vivaciously alive and affecting you quietly gasp at times, into the way home eludes many of us, and how easily what there is of it can be blasted into a million unretrievable fragments with little to no notice.

But, laced with searing introspection and some moments of gloriously good humour, State Highway One also offers some small hope in the midst of the messy hellhole of grief that home can eventually be found even if the journey to get there takes you to the very end of yourself (and your home country) in the process.

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