By Stephen King
Stephen King is my favorite writer. I’ve
read just about everything he’s written. He is a master storyteller,
much more than a mere horror writer. His novels transcend simple
categories and themes. Bag
of Bones, his previous novel, is not only a classic ghost
story but a touching tragic romance. Your average horror writer would have
a hard time with that, but King pulls it off without a hitch.
Scribner, 523 pp, 1999
Which brings us to his latest work of
fiction, Hearts in Atlantis, a collection of five related stories
tracing three friends from a small Connecticut town as they grow up during
the turbulent 1960’s. The book is not scary, although there are a few
heart-pounding moments. It’s probably the closest King has come to
writing a pure literary work. But is it any good?
The first installment, a novella called
Low Men in Yellow Coats, occurs in the summer of 1960. Eleven-year-old
Bobby Garfield and his widowed mother live in Harwich, Connecticut, a
suburb of Bridgeport. A man has moved into an upstairs apartment, Ted
Brautigan, whom Bobby befriends, although his mother does not trust him.
Ted offers Bobby a job: keep an eye on the neighborhood and watch for
strange symbols in sidewalk hopscotch grids, missing pet poster, and kites
hanging from power lines. Most importantly, look for “low men” wearing
yellow coats. They are very bad.
Naturally, young Bobby thinks Ted is
crazy, but the man is offering him one dollar a week, good money then, and
Ted is really nice, not dangerous in any way. Imagine Bobby’s surprise
when he starts seeing all of what Ted warned him about. Thus begins an
adventure that will change Bobby’s life, along with his “little”
girlfriend Carol Gerber, forever.
Funny and suspenseful, King weaves into
a soft fantasy that ties into his magnificent Dark Tower series the
joys and travails of childhood, similar with his child characters in It.
Bobby’s relationship with her mother is especially intriguing, and plays
a pivotal role at the end.
The next story, Hearts in Atlantis,
takes place six years later. Peter Riley is a freshman at the University
of Maine, and befriends a pretty co-ed named Carol Gerber. Carol leaves
school midway through the first semester, though, to take care of her
alcoholic, recently divorced mother and protest against the Vietnam War.
Riley, who has fallen in love with her, takes solace in the Hearts games
organized by the other freshman in his dormitory, and soon nearly every
guy in the dorm, Riley included, is addicted to Hearts. They play in the
third-floor lounge, all day and all night, flunking tests and getting
scholarships revoked. Riley realizes what is happening to him, and vows to
quit the game, but cannot. Until an unpopular, handicapped student named
Stokley Jones paints an anti-LBJ on a wall and takes a header down a steep
hill. That changes everything.
Although the Vietnam War and the peace
play a role in the story, it’s more of a coming-of-age theme, with the
political unrest as the backdrop. There is no supernatural element, no
blood or gore, no clanking ghosts or drooling monsters. Yet it is not
boring, which is a testament to King’s abundant talent.
The next three stories, unfortunately,
turn into more political devices rather than straight storytelling. The
characters in Blind Willie and Why We’re In Vietnam are veterans still
struggling to come to terms with their bloody experiences some twenty to
thirty years later. As I was reading their self-absorbed, self-pitying
recollections, I wondered if they thought they were the only people to
ever fight in a war. War is terrible, most people know, but I don’t
recall World War I and II vets whining and complaining about it twenty to
thirty years after the fact.
The last story, Heavenly Shades Of Night
Are Falling, finds fifty-year-old Bobby Garfield returning to Harwich,
where he reunites with Carol Gerber, now a fugitive for her role in
violent protests in the 60’s and living under a different name. It ends
on an endearing note, if somewhat vague, as the two share tender memories
and realize they still love each other.
Hearts in Atlantis is not the
typical King book, though he writes in his trademark witty and eloquent
style. Low Men In Yellow Coats is by far the best of the stories, followed
by Hearts in Atlantis. A loyal King reader looking for blood and guts may
be disappointed, but I was not. Although the politics eventually drag them
down, the stories are well paced and exciting, just from a literary
perspective. It’s different, and maybe not quite as good as other
novels, but a worthwhile effort nonetheless.