by Stephen King
Scribner, June 2014
448 pages / $30 Buy from Amazon
Like many writers my age (31), I probably wouldn’t be one if it weren’t for Stephen King. At 16, finding the idea of short story writing woefully unambitious, my early attempts at novels were thinly-masked Stephen King impersonations. Based on the malodorous work that turns up in self-publishing, writers’ workshops, and slush piles, I’m not alone in that my first fictional efforts reeked of The King.
His influence isn’t necessarily a bad one. King became a best-selling author thanks to his expert pacing, gift for metaphor, wry sense of humour, and a number of intangible talents. Adam Ross and Justin Cronin are recent devotees who demonstrate that even elite ‘literary’ writers can benefit (both financially and creatively) when they borrow from King’s bag of tricks.
The most important way that King aided in my development is that his work has always been littered with literary and cultural references. (In recent years, he’s been obsessed with Philip Roth, comparing the reception of his own work to Roth’s in essays, and frequently bringing him up in fiction.) In this way, King inadvertently sabotaged my love for him. He’d reference Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer, and their writing would end up on the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. With all those major works waiting to be read, I found myself in a situation described by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Magic Window, a short volume that celebrates the contents of his book collection.
“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before.”
As I began to read ‘better’ books, King became unpleasant for me. His heavy-handed foreshadowing, his loose women who invariably wore, “fuck me shoes,” the wise-ass protagonist who was certain to chummily say “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” at some point. It’s not that I wanted to outgrow Stephen King. I wanted to continue being entertained by him, comfortable in the knowledge that a new book was never more than a few months away. But a 1-2 punch of the mentally-handicapped Duddits character in Dreamcatcher (*shudders internally*)and the baby-talk that makes up the second half of The Dark Tower series sealed the deal. Since that time I have tried and most often failed to read new Stephen King novels. I did get through Under the Dome, the high point of his later work. I got halfway through 11/22/63 before literally saying out loud to myself, “What am I doing this for?” That book is fucking terrible, and over 750 pages. Happily, King’s latest, Mr. Mercedes, is his first book I’ve managed to read with some sustained degree of pleasure since the rift occurred when I was about 20.
King’s first novel-length foray into straight crime fiction follows a standard cat and mouse setup. Retired Detective Hodges (obnoxiously referred to as ‘det ret,’ short for ‘retired detective,’ throughout) is hunting a psychopath who drove a Mercedes into a crowd of job-seekers while Hodges was still on the force. I was drawn in immediately. The opening job fair scene is a poignant and humanist perspective on the economic crisis. King is not only a populist writer because he’s sold more books than Louis L’Amour or John Grisham, but because, like Steinbeck, he gives eloquent voice to the downtrodden and marginal. An acerbic description of a Jerry Springer-styletalk show follows that wouldn’t look out of place in the fiction section of The New Yorker, where King’s work, to Harold Bloom’s massive consternation, has itself appeared.
But I knew better than to get my hopes up. I’d been played too many times and knew loose women would be strapping on their ‘fuck me shoes’ before long. The first aspect to depress me was Hodges’ black teenage neighbour Jerome. It’s pounded home endlessly how Jerome is headed to an Ivy League school, speaks French, and reads D.H. Lawrence, but old Jerome also has a satirical bent. Like approximately 50,000 S.K. characters before him, black and otherwise, Jerome loves him some minstrel slang. A note left on Hodges’ door introduces Jerome:
Dear Massa Hodges,
I has mowed yo grass and put de mower back in yo cah-pote. I hopes you didn’t run over it, suh! If you has any mo chos for dis heah black boy, hit me on mah honker. I be happy to talk to you if I is not on de job with one of my hos. As you know dey needs a lot of work and sometimes some tunin up on em, as dey can be uppity, especially dem high yallers! I is always heah fo you, suh!
I wasn’t alive at the time, so I can’t say for certain, but maybe this type of humour was more common in the 70s, when sharecropper stereotypes could still be seen on late-night TV, but if there are 17-year-old Ivy League-bound black youth still finding “Yes massa,” to be the height of hilarity, they’re probably few and far between. That’s not to say Stephen King is a racist. That is to say Stephen King is badly out of touch with how people speak in the 21st century.
Nor is that the only Jerome-centric problem. He is the web-savvy Watson to Hodges’ luddite Holmes. He “buys” the best virus protection on the market (lel.) He marvels at the security of a website that won’t let him print the screen directly from the file menu on his browser, but does let him take a screenshot, as if a PrtScn/CTRL-V was beyond the capabilities of all but the most elite hackers. Without having been there, I recently wrote a scene set in Versailles. I was terrified of being exposed by some little detail, and ended up furiously Googling Versailles landmarks, train stations, etc., but even after all that Googling, I produced, at best, a functional representation, not a nuanced or interesting one. Success seems to have girded King against this kind of self-doubt (and, apparently, editorial feedback) and here he’s an equally-ignorant travel guide. Destination: Internet, a place he doesn’t understand, but won’t be deterred in explaining to us at some length.
What has always redeemed Stephen King books is the degree of truly lurid and disturbing material he can cram into a mass-market novel that will be sold in airport gift shops. When late night hosts mention Stephen King, the joke is always some variation of, “That guy’s not quite right.” The joke represents something true. Characters like The ‘Coors’ Kid in The Stand or the cop who tickles the testicles of men he interrogates in Rose Madder are genuinely unpleasant and disturbing. I remember reading this stuff as a kid, zooming through the pages, waiting eagerly for the next testicle tickling, or the next bit I’d get a guilty rush from reading. Stephen King is still kind of messed up. And that makes me happy. He all too contentedly inhabits the mind of Brady Hartsfield, a psychopath who killed his disabled brother in childhood, receives incestuous handjobs from his drunken mother, and had to wear a condom for fear of ejaculating during his mass murder spree.
That brings about one final criticism. Brady Hartsfield, though humanized briefly by descriptions of his troubled upbringing, is essentially pure evil. Hodges, on the other hand, doesn’t do anything that isn’t either extremely practical or perfectly decent. His lone flaw involves suffering from depression at the start of the novel, but once back on the hunt, he shows not one sign of human weakness. A supporting character who is emotionally damaged doesn’t speak a single line of dialogue that doesn’t scream out, “This person is emotionally damaged.”
None of which really matters. King, as he’s so often done in the past, drives hard to the basket and closes the book with a flourish of intensity that any writer would be thrilled to produce. King’s constant readers will eat this up with little concern for King’s flaws or the tweed elbow patch-crowd who condemn him. Folks like Harold Bloom will continue to hold their head in their hands and wonder why we can’t all agree to embrace Pynchon, or William Gaddis, or whomever the new William Gaddis is purported to be, as being far more worthy of attention than King. Me, I’m just happy to have gotten through one more ride with the guy who got me to love books in the first place.
Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, Variety, and Exclaim! Magazine. His online fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and university journals of moderate renown. Stories have appeared in print in M-Brane, Feathertale, Filling Station, and elsewhere.