Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Great American Novels

I appear to have been on a bit of a Stephen King jag recently.

It started with the audio book of Hearts in Atlantis, narrated by William Hurt and Stephen King. I originally read this book a couple of years ago, but revisiting it in this form was most rewarding. The opening novella, 'Low Men in Yellow Coats', is perhaps one of King's very best works encompassing the magic of childhood, friendship, first love, betrayal and loss. It is set in small town America in 1960, where Bobby Garfield, who has just been given an adult library card for his birthday rather than the Schwinn bike he craves, meets Ted, an old man on the run from the eponymous low men of the title. King references several classic works of fiction - Clifford Simak's 'Ring Around the Sun', Wyndham's 'Midwich Cuckoos' (or rather the film version 'Village of the Damned') and most affectingly 'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding to illustrate Bobby's gradually expanding perception of the world around him, and perfectly evokes the joy of discovering other worlds through literature. The town and its environs are similarly well realized, particularly in the brief sojourn to the urban hell of Bridgeport - 'down there' - with its hustlers and scoundrels and seedy pool halls.

The other short stories in the collection follow the same characters, and those tangentially affected by them, through the heady rush of political and sexual awakenings against the back drop of an all encompassing card game in a small college in the late sixties, to the green hell of Vietnam and the blindness (both literal and metaphorical) of the Reagan era, and finally to death and the completion of the circle. An extraordinary journey, and all the more involving for the warmth and intimacy of the reading.

Next up was a pair of novels that had sat on my bookshelf for a while after being acquired in one of those special offer book of the month type clubs - namely The Regulators and Desperation. They are notable for taking the same characters and basic premise and then spinning vastly different stories from them. The Regulators was published as a Richard Bachman book, a pseudonym that Stephen King used for several early novels, and it shares some of the stripped down and immediate style of 'Roadwork' as well as some of the themes (namely, armed sieges in suburbia). The Regulators takes the form of the B movie western of the same name, where a small community is terrorized by external forces, apparently supernatural in nature. It is an extremely visceral novel - the fairly small cast of characters is whittled down with alarming brutality - and it is perhaps not one to linger over for too long. Desperation is the companion novel, and it complements the first one rather well. Most of the characters make a re-appearance although they are all different in various subtle and not so subtle ways. This book is far more apocalyptic and didactic in nature, with the ancient evil of a small mining town in the desert being explicitly countered by the forces of god (although whether this god is the christian one or not is open to debate). 'King' is more expansive and discursive than 'Bachman' and it is interesting to learn more of some of the characters only briefly sketched in The Regulators. Well worth reading these two as a pair, and in the order that I did, I think.

Finally, I've just finished listening to another audio book - 'The Gunslinger', which is the first novel in the Dark Tower sequence. This one is read by George Guidall, something of a superstar in the audio book world (and the reader of American Gods which we listened to last year). The book opens with the gunslinger of the title pursuing the man in black across an endless desert, and continues in an oddly dreamlike (not to say nightmarish) fashion as we learn more of the gunslinger, the post apocalyptic world (that has 'moved on') and his quarry. It is only a short story, really, (shorter than 'Low Men in Yellow Coats'), and it is really an introductory piece to set the tone for the subsequent books. One sequence recalls the film 'High Plains Drifter', with a small town seething with decay and the gunslinger as a cleansing moral agent, but the plot is not at all important other than as a device to introduce the enigmatic hero. I think that I will have to reserve judgement on this until I have read the rest of the books in the sequence, but I am certainly going to, which should tell you something about the quality of the book.

So, four very different works, all of them intriguing and well crafted in their own ways. Stephen King is certainly one of the greats of twentieth century American literature and well worth exploring if you had dismissed him as a hack only worthy of producing dime store pulp novels.

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