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|According to Stephen
King, he didn't plan to write an elegy to the '60s -- it just
sort of happened. That sort-of quality is evident throughout
Hearts in Atlantis, a sort of collection of five stories
that are sort of connected, and that, taken together, sort of
turn out as a novel. And is it one of King's best? Sort of. There
are passages in Hearts in Atlantis as moving and evocative
as anything he's written, and the book is, to use a threadbare
cliche, compulsively readable. Yet it is, overall, a disappointment.
King's metaphor this time is Atlantis as the baby-boomer years
-- the ideals and innocence of the '60s that gradually sank;
the lost dreams and potential of a lost generation. Well, reading
Hearts in Atlantis, you can sometimes glimpse the lost
potential of the book, too. King came at it sideways instead
of head-on -- he assembled it instead of setting out to write
it -- and perhaps he might have fallen on his face the other
way (as he feared he might); we'll never know. The skeleton is
here for a great epic that could have stood alongside The
Stand or It. Occasionally, there is meat on the bones;
just as often not.
King begins the book poorly, with a novel-length story -- "Low
Men in Yellow Coats" -- that weighs in at a bloated 243
pages and could have been told just as effectively at half the
length, or even a quarter the length. The year is 1960, and 11-year-old
Bobby Garfield has struck up a friendship with a mysterious old
man named Ted Brautigan. Ted knows a lot about literature; he
also knows a lot about creepy guys in yellow coats, who are coming
to get him. Bobby soon has quite a bit on his mind, what with
the threat of the low men, the threat of bullies from a nearby
Catholic school, the threat of his own increasingly miserable
mother, and the threat of losing his heart to angelic Carol Gerber.
Problem is, King has done all of this before: the bullies, the
weird villains from hell or beyond, the young love, the troubled
parent who turns scary (Bobby's mom would get on fine with Jack
Torrance), the relationship between a boy and an old man (handled
more touchingly in The
Shining and more disturbingly in Apt
Pupil). Bobby even has flashes of mindreading ("winkles,"
they're called here), just like Danny Torrance and Johnny Smith.
As an introduction to what's being called King's most mature
work, "Low Men" is decidedly cheesy. It's as if he
weren't secure enough to tackle the '60s without prefacing it
with a bit of booga-booga. Yet you have to read it because it
sets up characters that the subsequent four stories will revisit
(though good old Ted never comes back ... raising the question
of just what he's doing in this book; if I were King's editor,
I would've advised him to jettison Ted, and his stupid yellow-coated
antagonists, too). Intellectually, you can make "Low Men"
connect thematically with the other stories, but emotionally
you don't feel any linkage; the rest of the book is pretty much
straight fiction, often fine enough to show up "Low Men"
for the self-derivative mumbo-jumbo it is.
Jump ahead six years: we are now into the title story (this one
comes in at 150 pages), an account of how campus radicalism and
anti-war fervor began at the University of Maine -- and, by extension,
on every other campus in America. We track the narrator, Pete
Riley, as he gradually morphs from a largely apolitical student
who votes Republican to a slightly more politicized student who
listens to Phil Ochs and has a peace symbol drawn on the back
of his high-school jacket. Pete falls for the now-college-age
Carol Gerber, who is on her way to becoming an anti-war protester;
he is also in danger of flunking out of school because he --
along with a lot of the guys in his dorm building -- devotes
way too much time to the card game of Hearts. (Hence the title.)
King shows that a lot of the increased student opposition to
the war in Vietnam had to do with their fear of getting drafted
and dying in the jungle -- not to mention the tantalizing hippie
chicks who believed in peace and free love.
"Hearts in Atlantis" is the book's real starting point,
though the remaining stories focus on characters from "Low
Men" in their later years. The intriguing "Blind Willie,"
set in 1983, tracks a day in the life of Willie Shearman, who
once ran with the group of punks that threatened Bobby Garfield
and beat up Carol Gerber. Willie, who went on to serve in Vietnam,
deals with his guilt by splitting himself into three personalities.
The final two stories, "Why We're in Vietnam" and "Heavenly
Shades of Night Are Falling," bring things full circle with
a peek at Bobby and his former best friend John Sullivan (another
'Nam vet) circa 1999. "Heavenly Shades" seems like
an obligatory wrap-up, tying the loose ends of "Low Men,"
and the book ends on a weak and superficial note; but the three
middle stories hint at the great book that might have been. Those
stories, to borrow a phrase used by John D. MacDonald in his
introduction to Night Shift, contain "nary a rustle
nor breath of other worlds." Heavy with regret over the
Vietnam generation, the middle section touches on despair and
rage only hinted at in King's previous work.
Stephen King has shown in the past that nobody alive is better
at things that go bump in the night. In such stories as "Rita
Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and "The Woman in
the Room" (both adapted for film by Frank Darabont, whose
version of The
Green Mile is coming this Christmas), and in such novels
as Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game, King has
proven himself not too shabby at "regular" fiction,
either. His horror stories and non-horror stories generally have
one thing in common: again in MacDonald's words, "One is
led to care." King creates likable human beings, puts them
in vulnerable situations -- whether a haunted hotel or a prison
-- and gets us on their side. Simple as that, and yet it's a
rare gift among novelists these days, and King should have more
confidence in himself. He should realize that he doesn't need
to throw in a stale mug of beer like "Low Men in Yellow
Coats" to jazz up what could have been a really fine banquet.
There may yet be a great work of literature in the King brain,
and Hearts in Atlantis in its most glowing passages extends
the promise of a new depth, a new sadness. That's not to say
his best horror doesn't have a greatness of its own -- I particularly
favor Pet Sematary (though not the oafish movie derived
from it) -- but I hope King remembers he has never needed horror
as a crutch. He can go wherever he wants.