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PALE HIGHWAY: book in review


Before I dive into this review, I had to brew myself a fresh cup of joe, to put myself in tune, hopefully, with the ways of Nicholas Conley. The ground bean vapors, I pray, will act as my spiritual guide in writing this review. I’m not sure how many of you know who Nicholas Conley is, but for those who don’t let me say, if I may, how fantastic of a guy he really is. and not just because how you might find his name on the back of my first novel, Reinheit, but also because of his charm towards all walks of life. Nicholas is an adventurer, both in the literary world and in the literal world around us. He is a fan of science fiction, comic books, and horror movies. His new novel, Pale Highway (of which I will be reviewing here) was based in large of his experiences with Alzheimer’s patients while working at a nursing home.

Before we begin, here’s the blurb provided on the back of the book to give you a somewhat general idea of what Pale Highway is about:

“Gabriel Schist is spending his remaining years at Bright New Day, a nursing home. He once won the Nobel Prize for inventing a vaccine for AIDS. But now, he has Alzheimer’s, and his mind is slowly slipping away.

When one of the residents comes down with a horrific virus, Gabriel realizes that he is the only one who can find a cure. Encouraged by Victor, an odd stranger, he convinces the administrator to allow him to study the virus. Soon, reality begins to shift, and Gabriel’s hallucinations interfere with his work.

As the death count mounts, Gabriel is in a race against the clock and his own mind. Can he find a cure before his brain deteriorates past the point of no return?”

So there you have it, the general premise of things to come.

Nicholas Conley’s Pale Highway is a fantastic read in a brand I typically do not indulge in, yet somehow, through his characterization and prose, in the guise of Gabriel Schist, Nicholas was able to hold me spellbound all the way to the completion of the story. When I say, “not my typical brand,” this is true, I typically do not read disaster, world plague type books (well, except for perhaps Stephen King’s The Stand). Nothing personal to the sub-genre, but it has been my experience, for the most part, those kinds of books typically skim over character development in lieu for action sequences, and too often (sadly) hateful rhetoric and needless doomsday-isms. LET ME BE VERY CLEAR AT THIS JUNCTION, Pale Highway does none of those things. In fact, the “plague” acted as nothing more than to keep the momentum of the story, to keep motivations rolling towards its ultimate conclusion. The real story is in the tired, tragic life of one Gabriel Schist. In that story, we find so much more than the arc of one man’s life, we also find perhaps a “highway,” if you will, pointing us toward deeper, more meaningful questions, not about what we’ll wear this weekend on a date, but rather, questions of what we’re doing with our lives, how we’re treating those we love and strangers alike, who we are spending time with. In the immortal words of Henry David Thoreau, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

The prologue puts us a little bit into the future, giving the reader a small glimpse of things to come. A Black Virus has swept into the halls of Bright New Day and into the lap of one Gabriel Schist, a Nobel Prize winning genius/scientist suffering with Alzheimer’s, who, somehow, is supposed to stop the epidemic. From here, we know the score. Something bad is on the way, and given Mr. Schist’s cognitive condition, the odds are not in his favor, but instead of playing up some sort of blockbuster-ish global terrorism BS as so many other biological Armageddon books typically do, no, from here we move into the lives of the people residing in the beds of Bright New Day, a nursing home along the coast of New Hampshire. And we also get to experience, if only marginally yet beautifully written, how it is to live in a nursing home, how it is to have your basic cognitive functions slowly slip away. You can tell right away, this story was written from experience, and I suspect that the character known as Harry could possibly be a mirror of Nicholas himself.

Be-that-as-it-may, one of the finer qualities of the book was how Nicholas carefully walked the reader through Gabriel’s life. We get to see, inch by painful inch, his story unfold, from the lows to the highs, so much so that certain elements are so systematically revealed, there is a real mesmerizing quality to the pages.

Without revealing too much, and I want to leave a lot of detail out of this review, mostly because I want a first time reader to discover these things on their own, in their natural environment and revelation. However, if we were to look upon this work as a musical composition, I’d say Nicholas hit a range of notes, colliding together in a spectacularly rich, dramatic, heartbreaking, and joyous crescendo. There were moments of happiness. There were moments of tragedy and helplessness (lots of helplessness, and not too surprising considering the subject matter). Lots of regret and understanding purpose. And, especially towards the middle and later half, moments of dementia, unsure if things seen are real or the figment of Gabriel’s imagination, hallucinations caused by his rapidly decaying mind.

And…I will not spoil the rest. You’ll have to find out on your own what happens. Overall, my only complaint, and this is marginal, was the absence of the daughter, Melanie, from a majority of the story. There is a beautiful father-daughter scene in chapter 2, and I had hoped to see more of them. But the focus was not on Melanie, but rather Gabriel, thus, we did not venture far from his perspective. And that’s okay, it doesnt ruin anything at all. When she finally does come back into play, those moments really captured the emotional momentum, literally bringing tears to my eyes. Thank you for that, Nicolas, really. And bravo, sir. Bravo.

My Review: 5/5

You can get your copy of Pale Highway on Amazon, here.


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