John Buell Roger Baker - Essay

Roger Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Shrewsdale Exit is a] neatly compelling reworking of a not unfamiliar theme: how the insider becomes the outsider. Joe Grant is an ordinary, clean-cut middle-American in his thirties. He has a matching wife and a dolly six-year-old daughter. On holiday their car is attacked, on the highway, by three motorcyclists—Hells Angels types. The women are raped and murdered, Joe survives. But, there being no witnesses to the incident, and a minimum of evidence, no case can be brought against the three freaks. Stunned and appalled by the apparent inability of the law and its processes to deal with the gang, Joe takes on the business of revenge himself.

This is just the beginning, and John Buell achieves a writing style that relates strongly to a film. The way in which he sets up the opening scene of violence is creepy and brilliant; not giving away too much, but just enough to scare the reader with anticipation…. [Buell uses a] simple, detached technique. Joe fails in his revenge and finds himself in prison for attempted murder….

With Joe's own imprisonment, the book changes gear a little…. [We] now find a picture of a man moving from the interlocked security of society into the position of outsider. Joe is cool in prison and is soon selected to make up a breakout party, and the novel moves into its final stages of re-birth through an assertion of simple human values: not the highly organised structures of society, but the wholesomeness of a rural, farming community.

Undoubtedly the tension with which the novel opens, slacks off. And it is replaced with a not particularly convincing portrait of Joe's re-emergence; unconvincing because the move from skilled documentary style to sensitive fiction underscores the novel's own move from possibility to the speculative. And the golden rays of hope with which the saga ends seem contrived and, in fact, render suspect the hitherto fairly rigid and consistently critical view of society projected. Not to worry … it was only a story, really…. (p. 102)

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1973; reprinted with permission), October, 1973.