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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Hearts in Atlantis

By Stephen King
Scribner, 523 pp, 1999

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.

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.

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