Book Review: Pale Highway

Pale Highway

by Nicholas Conley


400 pages. 

Genre: Science Fiction

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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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?

First Sentence (Prologue):  The patient had charcoal-black eyes, hard and cold, as if rounded chunks of volcanic rock had been shoved inside her eye sockets.

My Thoughts:

There’s a certain part of life that not many of us like to think about, and that’s the thought of our elderly years and dying.  And if that thought isn’t depressing enough, imagine what it would be like if you spent those years slowly losing your mind to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Many of us have had the heartbreaking experience of seeing a parent or grandparent succumb to Alzheimer’s, myself being one of those people.  If you, the reader of this review, also fall into that category, then I think Pale Highway will be well worth your time.

In a fictional version of our own world, Gabriel Schist spent his youth creating a vaccine for AIDS, which earned him a Nobel Prize.  Now he is spending his elderly years confined to a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.  As his brilliant mind slowly decays, a new deadly virus breaks out that carries the most horrific symptoms imaginable.  With the death toll rising within the nursing home, Gabriel must find a cure to the Black Virus before he loses himself entirely to Alzheimer’s.

It might be easy to assume that the main focus of the story will be containing the Black Virus and uncovering some great conspiracy of bioterrorism that led to the birth of the virus in the first place, but Pale Highway proves to be nothing like that, and that is part of why I love it. Pale Highway is more about the human condition. And while there are sci-fi elements present that might get a little weird and out there for some readers (talking slugs and the great sky amoeba), they fit.  They fit so well in the allegorical web of this story.

The characters are very well written and easily kept my interest.  Each had their own quirk or uniqueness about them. You have Gabriel— gifted (as well as cursed) with a brilliant mind— who ironically falls prey to a disease that will ultimately destroy that gift. Gabriel has one remaining person from his earlier life that’s still alive— his daughter, Melanie— and he feels that she is neglecting him by not visiting enough.   He’s trapped in a nursing home full of other elderly patients who are also struggling with the slow decline of their body and mind.  Most of them are alone and seemingly exist for no other reason than to wither away until they eventually die. Death itself falls into the underlying theme of the story, showing us a scenario of how the human mind conditions itself to deal with it.

The big question posed throughout the story is whether or not everything that’s happening is real, or if it’s all just part of Gabriel’s deteriorating mind.  His different levels of consciousness and individual perception of reality play key roles in tying everything together.  To put it simply, the elements that build this story are beautiful!

The glimpses into Gabriel’s past fall nicely into place with his present day.  So much significance can be found in even the tiniest things, from the trench coat and fedora that Gabriel always wears to the way the sails work on a sailboat.  Even the aquarium in the nursing home lobby has hidden meaning (or at least to me).

This is the third book I have had the pleasure to read from Nicholas Conley, and I think it is more than safe to say he is now on my list of favorite authors. That is not an easy title to earn from me. I love lots of different books, but for me to get excited about reading a book simply because of the author name that’s on the cover, that is a rarity that was once reserved only for Haruki Murakami.

Again, there is a lot of allegory in this book— and I would argue that Nicholas Conley is a master at allegories, which is why I’ve developed such a huge crush on his writing and the worlds he creates.  I cannot highly recommend this book enough! My only conflict at this point is which of Conley’s novels I love more, Pale Highway, or Intraterrestial.  It’s a very tough call!

Favorite Quotes:

His cigarette twitched unsteadily between two shaking fingers.  Already, it was burning down, dissipating into nothing.  Its tobacco-filled life was short and empty.  It served one purpose, and then it died.

Much as mankind was subservient to time, the sailboat was subservient to the water.  It could point itself, but only the ocean could propel it forward.

“Yeah, they kinda swim around all pointlessly, doncha think?”  Edna winced, squinting.  Over and over again, in the same li’l old place.  It’s madness.  Glad I’m not a fish.”

Gareth had always felt an odd connection to the boy.  He’d noticed a startlingly mature intensity in Gabriel’s grey eyes, something darker than a shadow, yet glowing at the same time, and he’d often wondered what was going on in that little head.

“Stop berating yourself.  Self-debasement is an utterly narcissistic waste of time, and due to the nature of your particular mental disease, we don’t have much time to waste, now do we?”

“I spent a long time trying… to make things work, trying to be happy.  But at this point in my life, I’ve just accepted my loneliness for what it is.”

He felt humiliated at having to admit that he, the man of science, the introvert of introverts, actually felt lonely.  Loneliness made him pathetic.

“Human beings aren’t logical!  It’s not in our nature.  We’re fundamentally illogical creatures.  We’re not math problems that you can simply solve and be done with.  It doesn’t work that way.”

“Even if they locked him up for a thousand years, one more moment with Yvonne was enough to last him a lifetime.  He’d made a mistake when he let her go.  It wasn’t fair that one mistake could cost him so dearly.

Gabriel squeezed his hands into fists.  “What I’m doing here is a sacrifice.”

“You can’t sacrifice what you don’t care about in the first place.”

As soon as he drowned in that ocean, he would simply disappear into the same eternal void that she vanished into years ago.  Sentimentality and logic never went well together.

“Death was the reward. That was perhaps the greatest punishment of all and evilest mockery.”

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Other Books by Nicholas Conely that I’ve reviewed:

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