The late great Roger Zelazny is well-known for enigmatic little fables that play with familiar notions like time and space while not exactly handing you pat answers about either. Roadmarks is quintessential in this regard. The story is a dreamlike concoction that takes place along a highway that stretches through time rather than place. One can travel back to the age of the dinosaurs, or forward nearly as far. Various branches off the road can lead you to histories that never really happened. One stumbles upon the road seemingly by accident, although it is hinted that those who travel the road are in fact linked to it in mysterious ways.
Traveling the road is Red Dorakeen, whom we first meet as he is apprehended trying to run guns back to the Greeks so they can defeat the Persians at Marathon. Dorakeen learns he is the target of a "black decade," a series of ten attempts on his life authorized by those hidden creators of the road. Dorakeen knows his nemesis is Chadwick, a former business partner with whom he had a falling out, but he isn't sure why Chadwick suddenly wants him very dead. Chadwick recruits several hit men for this task, while, at the same time, Dorakeen's son, Randy, has been guided to the road and has hooked up with Leila, a former traveling companion of Red's. The two of them are searching for Red, Randy for obvious filial reasons (he's never known Red, who fathered him during one of his offramp excursions), and Leila because she thinks she has some clues as to what is really the road's purpose, and what Red's and everyone else's roles are in the unfolding metadrama.
In only 185 pages, Zelazny delivers a witty and dreamlike tale that could easily have been expanded into a dreary and overly serious epic. Resisting the temptation is commendable (Zelazny never really went in for overlong books as a rule, a lesson many current writers would do well to adopt), even if it means that contemporary readers, used to having everything spelled out for them, might find bits of Roadmarks maddeningly vague. Yes, Zelazny does resolve his story while leaving some unanswered questions, and I admit that I didn't think Chadwick's motivations for wanting Dorakeen assassinated were as clear as they should have been, and this made me feel less concern over Dorakeen's safety than I should have. But where the mystery of the road is concerned, Zelazny tantalizes you with a light touch that only enhances your curiosity. Zelazny knew that to reveal too much could sometimes mean robbing your tale of that sense of wonder, that aura of magic. If you read carefully, there is enough revealed there to complete the story, and to satisfy your craving for information about the road, and its incredible creators. The climax is truly dazzling.
What is really awe-inspiring to speculate upon is how many more stories could have been realized using the road as a backdrop. The potential is limitless, and why Zelazny never revisited the road before his untimely death in 1992 we may never know. Perhaps he thought he had told the story he wanted to tell. While the end result may not quite rise to the superlative heights of his award-winning classics, at least Zelazny left us a voyage upon which our imaginations can travel, unbounded by time.