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hearts in atlantis

review by rob gonsalves

Stephen King

September 1999
528 pages

Buy the discounted hardcover at

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.

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