When Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Lolita that “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” he was not predicting the arrival of the serial killer and necrophile Ted Bundy. But he might have been.
It’s unclear to me how fancily Bundy wrote. But he spoke with a grisly elan. Asked by a prison interviewer to describe his crimes, he said: “How do you describe what a quiche tastes like? Or what the juice of a bouillabaisse is like or why it tastes the way it does?” He added, “Some people taste clams” while others “mullet and the mussels.”
Among US serial killers, Bundy seemed especially terrifying because he was mobile. He confessed to murdering 30 young women in the 1970s, and those killings were spread across seven states. He was bad, as the ZZ Top song has it, and he was nationwide.
Ginger Strand’s new book, Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate, examines the links between random killings and the anonymity and soullessness bred by our Interstate system. These are connections most of us have long ago made in our minds. As Strand observes, “If a song or book title contains the word Interstate or freeway, expect mayhem.”
Strand’s slim book is part true-crime entertainment, part academic exegesis, part political folk ballad. I don’t wish to overpraise it: It has soft spots; it frequently deals with material covered in better books; you will not confuse the author’s modest prose with Nabokov’s. Yet her cross-threaded tales of drifters, stranded motorists and madmen got its hooks into me. Reading Strand’s thoughtful book is like driving a Nash Rambler after midnight on a highway to hell.
On its most primal level Killer on the Road recounts the crime sprees of men like Charles Starkweather. In 1958, at 19, he cruised around Lincoln, Nebraska, in stolen cars with his girlfriend and a sawed-off shotgun, killing 11 people and leading the National Guard on a multistate manhunt. His bad actions inspired two indelible pieces of American art: Bruce Springsteen’s song Nebraska and Terrence Malick’s film Badlands.
By Ginger Strand
University of Texas Press
Starkweather was driven, in no small part, by class rage. He said later, “Dead people are all on the same level.”
Strand, whose previous work includes Inventing Niagara (2008), a history of Niagara Falls, dilates frequently upon class issues in her new book, upon the social inequities and simmering resentment behind many violent crimes. But her political analysis has more tentacles than that.
In a chapter about the killings of young people, mostly black boys, in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, murders for which an unhinged man named Wayne Williams was ultimately arrested, she carefully parses how the Interstate system plowed through black sections of town, eliminating old neighborhoods. These were “white men’s roads,” as the National Urban League put it, “through black men’s bedrooms.”
She charts the social atomization that resulted.
“Atlanta’s urban renewal and expressway construction had, at the very least,” she declares, “built the stage on which the tragedy in Atlanta could unfold.”
This book’s most unsettling chapter takes its name from one of the great, literate rock bands in this country: Drive-By Truckers. This chapter gives us Strand at her angriest, grisliest and most convincing. In it she proposes that America’s 10,000 or so truck stops breed serious crime, including serial murder, at a terrible (and largely preventable) level.