The Ghost of Mile 43 by Craig Rodgers
Soft Cartel, April 2019
111 pages / Amazon
Men love reading about men who eschew conventional society in order to find themselves. Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger and writers of that ilk are heroes to young men on the cusp of adulthood, when independence laces their blood, before the realities of life set in. Even when, say, Sal Paradise’s/Raoul Duke’s/Holden Caulfield’s journey becomes cruel and unforgiving, their soul-seeking adventures are like a shot of wanderlust straight into a young man’s vein.
But times are different. We need another story about sad white man like we need a drunken acoustic guitar player at a house party. In the year 2019, it feels cringe-worthy to read a story about sad men wandering the earth looking for meaning, inspiration, their self, or whatever. When you have all the privileges in the world (often at the expense of women and people of color), what do you really have to be sad about? From what do you need to escape?
These are the questions that Craig Rodgers tackles in his stark, subversive and disarmingly complex novella, The Ghost of Mile 43.
The story follows Shaw, a man who loses everything within the first two pages of the book. In the opening scene, Shaw sits across from a banker and the banker’s lawyer, who have come to take away his house. In one of the story’s few scenes of dialogue, Shaw asks the gentlemen if he can smoke:
‘Any objection to me smoking?’
The banker scoffs.
‘I do. In here? Yeah I do.’
‘It’s my house.’
Shaw leaves to smoke outside, but not really. He’s finished. Finished with the bankers, with his house, with society. He walks out. His driveway becomes a street. A street becomes a highway. Apart from a few early scenes where he trades material possessions—a ring, a watch—for premade sandwiches and other essentials, Shaw doesn’t hesitate, nor does he look back.
Perhaps a lesser writer would portray Shaw’s societal purging with the kind of free-spirited glee that often accompanies Instagram posts espousing on the beauty of bohemian life, but Shaw is not #blessed. In Rodgers’ hands, uprooting oneself is not an act of joy nor is it righteous martyrdom. In fact, Shaw’s quest for isolation often feels as cumbersome and pragmatic as working a regular job. It’s a cunning reminder that fetishizing the nomadic life—or anything, really—is foolhardy, but there will always be purpose to be found in hard work.
Which makes the The Ghost of Mile 43 sound a little didactic. It’s not. There’s no grandstanding, nor soapboxes, but a methodical hand guiding us to discover our own meaning.
Shaw’s journey takes him to an old mining town, where he takes up residence in an abandoned house. He struggles to find a reliable source of food, and these scenes prove to be some of the most affecting and funny due to the honest depiction of how a wanderlusty man—who’s hitherto been dependent on modern conveniences—would actually survive. Shaw rations his premade sandwiches until they turn. He eats chips and preserved junk food. He finds a plum tree and for awhile, that’s his food. In what could be described as Man vs Wild gone wrong, he tries to eat a frog: “The bite is a crunch and then it is bitter mush and Shaw gags and swallows and spits. This is not meat. This is not meat.”
Independence does not come easy for Shaw, nor does isolation. He soon finds that the ghost town is haunted by other strangers and wayfarers, who try to engage Shaw to various degrees. One wanderer only inquires about his stash of plums. An old man who claims to be the heir of the town provides Shaw with food and books. A young couple leave pizzas on Shaw’s ramshackle porch and—in what might be the novel’s most biting critique of modern life—display the type of condescending white saviorism that’s common among internet virtue signalers and slacktivists.
And then there’s the phantom car that Shaw keeps seeing. As he considers who’s behind the wheel, the rumbling presence of it is a reminder that his former life is never too far behind. Even the most intrepid carpe diem-ers can go back to their support systems if shackleless living becomes too real.
The Ghost of Mile 43 masterfully holds the reader at arm’s length, giving us plenty of reasons to go back. There’s so much to glean in the quiet moments and the beautifully stark prose, and the muted dramatics make for an incredibly introspective read. Shaw’s journey is devoid of heroism—and at times it feels like Shaw is annoyed to even be Craig Rodgers’ protagonist—but those seem to be the type of stories men need to be telling these days: how to exist without self-aggrandizement, how to fill space without taking up anyone else’s, and, namely, how to be quieter.
Ryan Bradford is the author of the novel Horror Business, as well as the founder and editor of Black Candies. He is the winner of Paper Darts’s 2015 Short Fiction Contest. His writing has appeared in Vice, Monkeybicycle, Hobart