REVIEW #2 - PALE HIGHWAY - Nicholas Conley

Released: October, 2015 | Published by: Red Adept Publishing

Nicholas Conley is an author I’ve admired since the early days of 2011 when our novellas appeared side-by-side as two of the four stories in a Post Mortem Press anthology called The Road to Hell (side note: I’ll be discussing the work of another author from that anthology next when I tackle Robert Essig’s In Black from Grand Mal Press; stay tuned), so I jumped at the chance to review his award-winning novel Pale Highway for this site.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the book. I knew the basics from the synopsis. I knew, for instance, that the plot had elements of science-fiction and also that it dealt with Alzheimer’s (Nicholas is a major advocate for the proper treatment of nursing home patients; you can check out some insightful posts on the subject at the website linked below), but the story itself—and more specifically, Gabriel—won me over immediately. Once I started, I could hardly set down my Kindle.

Pale Highway is a character study of a man named Gabriel Schist. In the 1980s, Gabriel developed an inoculation called the Schist Vaccine and essentially wiped out HIV singlehandedly, a feat for which he eventually received the Nobel Prize along with the well-deserved admiration of the entire world. Fast forward to 2018, however, and he’s wasting away in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and struggling to come to terms with the slow degradation of his brilliant mind, which was once his greatest asset and defining characteristic but has since devolved into a roadblock hindering his adjustment to a landlocked life.

The book is an emotional rollercoaster, at times exhilarating, heartbreaking, terrifying, and joyful. There’s a reason it won the 2015 Predators and Editors Readers Poll for Best Science Fiction Novel. Several, actually. One is surely Conley’s writing style, which is difficult to compare to anyone else’s because it’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever read. The emotion and sincerity Nicholas poured into Gabriel’s character and his life circumstances set it apart from lighter fare. There’s a level of urgency in Pale Highway that simply can’t be manufactured and that’s what makes the novel so impactful. You know Nicholas cares about his characters on a deeper level than most, and at least some of that comes from his personal experience working in nursing homes (more on that in the interview).

One structural aspect of the book that particularly impressed me, though, was Conley’s seamless arrangement of flashback chapters within the 2018 story. The novel wouldn’t have worked as well in a completely linear structure. Our scattered glimpses of the past make the 2018 chapters resonate more profoundly. We know exactly what Gabriel has been through with the aid of this historical context—especially concerning his strained relationship with his daughter—and Conley relays this insight without making the background seem like an overwrought data-dump. That’s no easy feat.

Additionally, the flashbacks help the reader recognize the underlying regret Gabriel feels for his perceived failures as a husband and father, a key element of Gabriel’s own tainted view of his legacy. We realize that his fear of Alzheimer’s is magnified because his identity has always been inextricably tied to his genius. In Gabriel’s view, his sole worth as a human being lies in the output of his brain, a point which makes it poetic and necessary to have him confronting the dreaded Black Virus in his final days. This deep-seated fear brings to light the fundamental terror and chief concern of Pale Highway: for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s, what becomes your identity as you lose your sense of self? It’s a disturbing question the more you unpack it and Pale Highway doesn’t shy away from the horror of knowing your identity is slipping out of your grasp each day, nor the way the world at large looks at you because of it.

Conley describes the other endearing residents at the nursing home in great detail, particularly the way that the nursing staff has stripped them of their former identities and replaced their names with the repetitive compulsions that drive their demented brains (‘demented’ meant in the clinical capacity, of course). We have the Crooner. We have Gabriel’s roommate who obsessively changes his undershirt and requests Jell-O at all hours of the night. We have the faithfully married man who has forgotten his wife and flirts with all the other women in the home. We see Gabriel himself acting confused and requiring a board with pictures of the staff beside their names so he can remember them. These ticks are almost childlike, and poignantly consistent with the reality of a nursing home’s population. We find ourselves in the same trap of viewing these residents as mere caricatures of what we believe a normal, healthy person should be, and it’s Conley who subtly reminds us that they once had their own lives outside the walls of the nursing home just like ours. It should be obvious, of course, but that’s a detail we often overlook. It’s hard to reconcile the ‘healthy’ people they once were with the confused, aching men and women they’ve become in their later years (and which we will all become if we’re lucky enough to see the other side of seventy-five). Beyond discussing the issue as a plot device, it’s an important reminder to treat the elderly with the respect and dignity they deserve no matter how difficult it may be individually to identify with our loved ones once their cognitive functions fade and they become increasingly difficult to relate to communicatively.

While Gabriel’s primary struggle in Pale Highway is dealing with his loss of identity, it is hardly the only demon he must overcome. In the flashbacks, we see him struggling with self-doubt and a bevy of self-destructive behaviors related to his alcoholism. We also bear witness to his crisis of faith as he nears the end of his life and is forced to confront the question of what (if anything) lies beyond this mortal coil (spoiler alert: slugs). The latter struggle is equally powerful, though much less prevalent in the story. Gabriel has been an atheist ever since he was a child and he has several conversations with his friend Father Gareth about God, but directly confronting his legacy in the nursing home forces him to examine the world he’s leaving behind, and it’s not necessarily the way he’d like it to be. I was interested to know more about Gabriel’s thoughts on the matter but further exposition may have hamstrung other elements of the story and the concept is amply explored as is.

In a way, both the fragmented nature of the novel and its sudden jolts into the past are poignantly indicative of Gabriel’s mental state in the nursing home. The reader experiences the same disorientation Gabriel feels as memories begin to fog and drift away, yet Conley conveys the loss in such a way that the reader can appreciate the fabric of his life as a whole. Perhaps it is because I’ve witnessed loved ones lose their sense of self with old age and its associated maladies, but this book affected me on a deeper level than I was expecting. I highly recommend that you buy a copy and read it as soon as possible. Not only does it tackle the profound life questions of legacy, faith, and identity which are important soul-searching topics for anyone, you’ll also feel invigorated after reading it because—as with many great books—you can’t escape the overwhelming sense of hope at the end, no matter what does or doesn’t happen to Gabriel.

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

As both a reader and writer, I always have loads of questions for the author after I finish a book. I also think it’s important to give writers an opportunity to explain some of the how and why of their work, since they aren’t afforded that opportunity elsewhere when potential readers are considering their novel. To that end, I reached out to Nicholas with some questions that had been eating away at me since I finished Pale Highway.

JW: Pale Highway is in many ways a medical thriller as much as it is science fiction. Do you have a particular interest in medicine that inspired you to write this novel or did the idea come to you first and then you researched the immune system to make the book as accurate as possible?

NC: Pale Highway was first inspired by my real life experience working with Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing home. Caring for these people in that setting had a profound influence on my world view, and getting to know them gave me a strong desire to speak up about the reality of Alzheimer’s disease, to show the world what it was really like.

To do that, I knew that I wanted my protagonist to be a person with Alzheimer’s, and just as importantly to be a brilliant person whose work had somehow changed the world. When I came to the conclusion that Gabriel Schist was an award-winning immunologist, I began pouring through scientific journals, essays, and anything I could find. Once I learned more about the concept of autopoiesis, the novel’s primary narrative thrust took off.

JW: You open the third act of the novel with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Science never solves a problem without creating ten more.” How likely do you think it is that developing vaccines for some of humanity’s most notorious diseases will lead to super viruses down the road?

NC: Well actually, this sort of thing isn’t so unusual. While it’s obviously important that we do continue to develop new vaccines, medications, and so on, overuse of antibiotics has led to superbugs being created, which is a scary thing. In the Western world we’ve developed a tendency to be so afraid of pain and sickness that we’ll gulp down whatever medications we can to drown it out. For example, taking antibiotics when we have a cold. We really should be letting the cold take its course, until it’s out of our system.

Instead, our overuse of antibiotics breeds superbugs.

We’ve seen a lot of common treatments for things like pneumonia, gonorrhea, and more become ineffective because of antibiotic resistance. Then we have superbugs like MRSA, the most common nosocomial infection, which became so accustomed to antibiotic drugs that it mutated to be resistant to them. MRSA can cause boils, flesh eating viruses, lungs or urinary tract infections, and more.

JW: Pale Highway particularly resonated with me because of Gabriel’s struggles with Alzheimer’s and the image of him slowly wasting away in a nursing home. You make it easy for the reader to put him/herself in Gabriel’s shoes and you can really feel his disorientation at times when he wakes up and can’t remember where he is or even his daughter’s face, which is punctuated by his choice at the end of the book (no spoilers). I know you’ve discussed this in a post on another website, but how much did you draw from your experience working at a nursing home? What is it like to watch patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia slowly lose communicative skills? How, in your experience, are we able to help them transition with dignity?

NC: So much of Pale Highway is drawn from my experience in nursing homes that I can’t even begin to describe how personal every moment of the novel is for me, or how much the writing of it pummeled my emotions at every turn. The tragedy, the humor, the painful awkwardness, all of it.

Working with Alzheimer’s patients is one of the rewarding experiences I can describe, because I met so many amazing people, but it’s also unbelievably painful. The people I cared for became some of the best friends I’ve ever had, genuine friends, and to watch them fight a daily battle that they keep losing every day, bit by bit, is heart wrenching.

I think the most important thing we can do for people with this terrible condition, whether as caregivers or as family members, is to never forget the humanity of people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Don’t treat them as children, don’t talk down to them, don’t expect them to fall in line. People with dementia deserve dignity, respect, and independence.

JW: Gabriel can be described as a self-destructive character whether it’s in relation to his failed marriage, his fatherhood, his friendship with Father Gareth, or his alcoholism. Even as a scientist attempting to secure funding, he initially shoots himself in the foot during his presentation. I found it compelling, therefore, that the Schistlings represent another aspect of his destructive capacity, in that even what is clearly the crowning achievement of his life’s work is destructive to the world around him. Is his work to stop the Black Virus an attempt at redemption as he senses he may be closing in on death? How much of what happens is taking place in his head as a way for him to cope with the relationships he’s ruined throughout his life?

NC: I think Gabriel is a deeply troubled figure, and even after turning his life around when he created the Schist vaccine, I don’t believe he ever stopped punishing himself for his failures. He never quite stops being deeply confused about the complexities of life, and his solution is always to focus on things he understands — facts, science, evidence — while ignoring anything he doesn’t understand, such as emotions, spirituality, or talking slugs.

I do think the reason he becomes passionate about stopping the Black Virus is about redemption, though I don’t think he quite realizes that. This crisis, terrible as it is, allows him to rediscover what a compassionate and driven person he really is.

Now, as far as how much of what happens occurs in his head: I do think that is up to the reader, though I have my own strong beliefs about it. But the most important thing I wanted to get across is actually that it doesn’t matter whether Gabriel’s visions are real or hallucinatory. The redemptive actions he takes on his path are still his actions, his decisions. Whether they’re in his head or not, it’s important to recognize that those decisions still matter.

JW: To follow up the last question, do you believe that something is irrevocably drawn out of the artist/creator in any work of imagination, as Gabriel’s vaccine seems to drain all other aspects of his life? How much do you relate to that struggle as an author?

NC: Oh yes, I relate completely. The scenes where Gabriel is losing sleep, drinking coffee, working late into the night, that totally mirrors what my writing process is like. The drive it takes to be a creative person with something that you just need to put out into the world—whether one is a writer, a mathematician, a scientist, or what have you—requires a rather obsessive personality, and a willingness to work for long hours in a quiet, dark room.

JW: What was your process for writing the book? For instance, did you outline heavily? Did it take you fifteen years to complete or fifteen days? Do you have any rituals when you sit down and write?

NC: I’ve basically been working on Pale Highway since 2012. I started with months and months of notes, then did a detailed outline, then wrote the first draft. From there, I went through multiple edits, pouring through the manuscript and rewriting everything multiple times.

JW: What project are you working on right now? Do you have anything in the pipeline for release?

NC: Always! I always have multiple projects stirring around in different states. My current focus is on my next novel, which will be a science fiction novel dealing with a traumatic brain injury. Though it also takes inspiration from my real life experience, it’s a vastly different novel from Pale Highway, and I’m looking forward to putting it out there.

JW: Where can people find more information on your books?

NC: My website is the best place, at www.NicholasConley.com, and I post blogs regularly. I can also be found on Twitter at @NicholasConley1.

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