You Can't Always Get What You Want: On Stephen King
Is there any other living novelist who calls for a perpetual re-evaluation as much as Stephen King? Thirty-seven years after the publication of his first novel, Carrie, King still seems not just underrated but uncomprehended. For years his critical evaluation was hampered by the dual whammy of his being not only a genre writer but an immensely successful one. He was ridiculed and dismissed when he was paid any attention at all, yet when he didn’t go the convenient route of fading away after a few bestsellers (all but two of his books have remained in print), a sort of grudging attention began to be paid to him. Occasionally it was even approving. At a conference of postmodern novelists at Brown University, the critic Leslie Fiedler, who had written appreciatively of King (even mischievously calling him a closet intellectual), announced to an assembled group that included William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, “When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.”
The serious consideration King has sporadically received over the years peaked in 2003, when the National Book Foundation honored him with a medal for lifetime achievement. The dedication was exactly right: “Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative.” Notable among the expected harrumphing that followed was the noxious black cloud hanging over New Haven, which materializes whenever Harold Bloom decides a barbarian is about to defile the canon (see also Rowling, J.K.).
But respectability can leave a writer as underappreciated as dismissal does. In a way, the National Book Foundation’s recognition was confirmation that King had become A Writer Who’s Better Than You Expect Him to Be. Just a year earlier, a great deal of public affection greeted the release of From a Buick 8, the first King novel to appear since the accident that had nearly killed him three years before (he was struck by a pickup while walking on the side of the road). Reviewers understood the story of a mysterious Buick Roadmaster that comes out of nowhere and brings violence and terror in its wake to be a metaphor for King’s brush with death. They weren’t wrong, but they also underestimated the book.
Along with Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour and the majestic, lacerating song “Boeing 737,” from the Low Anthem’s latest album, Smart Flesh, From a Buick 8 belongs on the very short list of works of imagination that have managed to convey the rupture of 9/11 in all its shock and fear. The day is mentioned once in From a Buick 8, among a list of events in a paragraph meant to tick off the years. But the psychic legacy of the day colors the entire book. King took what turned out to be the great cliché of 9/11, that nothing would ever be the same again, and treated it as an irreducible truth.
That alone put him at odds with much of the commentary and decision-making that followed 9/11, from the sanctimonious pronouncements made on the left about the cause of the attacks before anyone had claimed responsibility for them, to the right’s use of them to justify its slavish militarism and contempt for human rights. Implicit to many of these responses was the belief that nothing had happened that couldn’t have been anticipated, and consequently that not only the causes of the attacks but the proper response to them was self-evident. Against these arrogant certainties, King focused on uncertainty as the very currency of American life.
A Buick that’s a portal from an unknown realm, a machine that can make people vanish and also discharge the mangled remains of creatures who try to make the trip to this world, is the stuff of sci-fi pulp. But King also reckons with the sometimes necessary violence done to creatures who so disgust us that we can barely credit the idea that they suffer. What dominates the novel is the Buick, simultaneously present and unremarked on. Impounded in a small-town police garage, itself a metaphor for the inadequacy of our methods for keeping the inexplicable at bay, the Buick, whose arrival and purpose remain unexplained, is a flutter of unease at the periphery of the everyday life King renders so precisely and warmly. That warmth makes us all the more anxious, conscious of how easily the quotidian can tear open. How, the novel implicitly asks, can we maintain our humanity living with the constant possibility of sudden violence?
The boy would never quite understand the way it had really been. How mundane it had been, at least on most days. On most days we had just gone on…. We had the miracle of the world out behind our workplace, but that didn’t change the amount of paperwork we had to do or the way we brushed our teeth or how we made love to our spouses. It didn’t lift us up to new realms of existence or planes of perception. Our asses still itched, and we still scratched them when they did.
Could any American reading that passage in 2002 not think of 9/11? It may be that a novelist who had written about vampires, or resort hotels harboring murderous spirits, or a viral plague that wipes out most of the world population, or freakish outsiders who are telekinetic or telepathic, was especially suited to consider how people attempt to carry on when the unthinkable has upended their lives. On the other hand, it could be that for all the fantastic and macabre in his work, King is so grounded in the American middle-class familiar that he could not help addressing such a violent intrusion into its living room.
That From a Buick 8 hasn’t been discussed as a 9/11 novel suggests that King is still far from being accepted as a serious writer. The insularity typical of the books celebrated as 9/11 novels is a trademark of what Terry Southern called the “quality lit” biz. To talk about a finicky finger sandwich of a novel like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), with its limp metaphor of a multiracial cricket team standing in for the disparate-yet-blended multitudes of New York City, as a response to 9/11 is to praise a literature in which the wan and tasteful is an adequate response to mass murder. It’s not subtlety I’m against. From a Buick 8, in its indirect metaphor, is subtle. It’s timidity. The aftermath of 9/11 should not be dealt with as, literally, a Sunday in the park.
As the momentary cohesion of 9/11 gave way to the division and disgust prompted by the war in Iraq and the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, King also abandoned subtlety. In the straight-up horror story Cell (2006), the act of dialing the digits 9-1-1 has the potential to turn people into murderous zombies. The metaphors of Under the Dome (2009) were even blunter. King used an invisible dome that descends on a small town, turning it into a tinpot tyranny, to represent the self-imposed isolation of the United States under George W. Bush. The Twilight Zone gimmick was equal to the deranged reality of an America awash in birthers and truthers, of future presidential candidates claiming death panels were being set up to euthanize the elderly, of media demagogues warning that FEMA was building concentration camps. It was a novel written by someone determined to keep fresh the outrages of the Bush years and the ones that have never stopped coming from the radical right—and, if only in the pages of his novel, to make the guilty pay.
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In King’s new novel, 11/22/63, the sense of justice that has always animated his fiction, his hatred of bullies and bigots and busybodies, collides with the futility of extracting revenge. Encompassing more than fifty years of US history, 11/22/63 charts the country’s deterioration from the politics of inclusion to the enshrinement of economic and spiritual meanness as the official expression of national character. The plot device might almost be a child’s wish-fulfillment fantasy: a portal allows the hero to go back in time to try and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Before the book ends, King addresses the simplicity of that wish. 11/22/63 becomes a double tragedy—of the murder that scarred America’s psyche and, despite the evidence that our good intentions produce horrendous results, of the persistence of the messianic belief that Americans have the power to right any wrong.
Whether they idealize the past or the future, time-travel stories often play to conservative and liberal fantasies of a golden age. At first in 11/22/63 it seems as if King is falling into the trap, writing in the quaint style of Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), an adventure in which a man flees the noise and charmlessness of the present for the more civilized past of New York City in 1882. In 11/22/63 the time portal is a pop icon, one of those silver railroad-style diners that instead of being abandoned or in disrepair is gleaming and welcoming. But the residents of Lisbon Falls avoid it. They’re convinced that the owner, Al, can sell his fatburgers so cheap because he’s really selling catburgers. King’s hero is Jake Epping, a 35-year-old divorced high school English teacher who doesn’t believe the rumors and is a regular at Al’s. Jake is almost a magazine illustration of the decent ordinary guy; he’s dedicated to his students, even taking on the drudgery of teaching an English GED class. When Jake gets an urgent call from Al, with whom he’s exchanged no more than pleasantries over burgers and coffee, he’s perplexed but willing to hear the old man out. Rather than explain why he called, Al takes Jake to the door of the diner’s storeroom, divests Jake of his pocket electronics, gives him some money and says he’ll see him in two minutes. Jake enters the storeroom and steps into 1958.
As anyone telling a time-travel tale would, King takes the scene slowly. He immerses us in Jake’s disbelief about walking around his small town’s living past and in the particulars, sensual as well as concrete, of the town. What Jake sees is predictable: women in dresses instead of slacks, a teenage boy trying out his best Elvis moves, a thriving produce store and soda fountain, drive-ins where the top of the double bill is a masterpiece (Vertigo) and the bottom half the kind of lush, enjoyable star-laden melodrama Hollywood doesn’t make anymore (The Long, Hot Summer). Some of what Jake sees is less predictable: root beer and candy bars that, in the age before preservatives, taste better. In its quiet way, mid-century Lisbon Falls dazzles Jake, who returns to the present primed to listen to Al’s plan for making the years since 1958 just as good.
The plan is simple: return to the past and kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Al has tried already and failed, and because he’s dying of lung cancer he doesn’t have enough years left to try again. The hitch of the portal is that though each trip into the past lasts only two minutes in present time, the time traveler returns to the present having aged the number of years he’s spent in the past. Al no longer even has the strength to continue making quick trips to buy ground sirloin at 1958 prices, the source of his bargain fatburgers. Al wants Jake to become the lone gunman for America’s future.
As Al tries to persuade Jake to undertake the mission, King introduces a sliver of disjunction that expands as the book progresses. It’s the gap between the grounded can-do American spirit and the visionary tasks it assumes can be accomplished. As Al tells it, all the horrors that America faced in the 1960s and early ’70s flowed from JFK’s assassination. If JFK lives and Johnson doesn’t become president, America doesn’t go to Vietnam and the country doesn’t tear itself apart. Bobby Kennedy is saved because he likely won’t run for the presidency in 1968. JFK’s civil rights accomplishments temper race relations, and Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t assassinated. What’s more, without King’s death there’s no black rage, and then, maybe, Fred Hampton isn’t murdered by the Chicago cops, and then, and then… It all has the quality of a kid spinning out a fantasy on a lazy afternoon. It’s seductive because, as with most counterfactuals, we get to play at being Providence, which is exactly the point.
* * *
Clearly, there’s much wrong with Al’s grasp of history. The cold-warrior exploits of JFK’s presidency—the Bay of Pigs, the reckless brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis—might very likely have found their next expression in Vietnam, and received a chorus of approval from the unholy alliance of Ivy League superiority and corporate technocracy that characterized the Best and the Brightest. Kennedy approached civil rights with, at best, a sense of noblesse oblige and, at worst, worries about his uncertain chances in the South in 1964. (As attorney general, Robert Kennedy made a deal for local authorities to arrest Freedom Riders for their own safety, even though the Supreme Court had already outlawed segregated waiting rooms in interstate travel facilities.) It would take a white Southerner, whose roots in the Texas hill country etched the experience of poverty forever in his bones, to approach civil rights as a moral imperative. As for King and the rise of the black power movement, nonviolence always risks—almost counts on—arousing violence, and is always going to be challenged by those sympathizers who see its wise counsel as passivity.
So what? There remains the murder of a young man in his prime, an event that was also a bloody assault on the sense of hope and energy he had brought into politics, a spirit that animated people who would move far beyond the compromises and diffidence of the man who inspired them.
Jake plunges into the past, and much of what follows—Jake traveling the country, setting up as a schoolteacher in a small town near Dallas, falling in love and having to tell his beloved who he is and where he’s from—offers the pampered pleasure of settling into a long, involving story. It’s nearly always a good thing when a new Stephen King novel is fat. King responds with confidence to the challenge of a long narrative, and not only because he loves telling stories. He also takes his responsibility to his readers seriously. The “constant reader” that King often addresses in his novels is not a contemporary writer’s nineteenth-century affectation; it’s a statement of principle. King wants to give his readers an experience that, no matter how violent or upsetting, is luxuriant, the feel of sinking into a book, of living in its world as the pages in our left hand equal and surpass the pages in our right.
Big books are never perfect, and King’s are no exception. Sometimes the drama, particularly where the weak or innocent characters suffer, lapses into melodrama and the violence sinks into genre grue. King has a taste for adolescent scatology without the dirty-little-kid sensibility that, in something like Dumb and Dumber or “The Miller’s Tale,” makes scatology explosively funny. At times his pitch-perfect feel for the texture and details of middle-class life descends into sentimentality, and those pages are irritating to wade through. But what stays with you are the moments of genuine, unforced feeling, like in Bag of Bones when an abruptly widowed man finds a book in which his wife had marked her place with a playing card, and realizes she will never read past that page. The sudden suffusion of the banal with bottomless grief suggests a writer who hasn’t surpassed Our Town (maybe the most spiritually terrorizing American work ever to become widely loved) but understands well enough the emotional depths of Thornton Wilder’s play to holler and be heard.
If King sometimes sentimentalizes small towns, he’s spent enough time in them (and learned enough about them from Shirley Jackson) to understand the violence they breed: the spouse and child battering, the bullying, the backbiting, the jealousy, the destructiveness of gossips and prudes. King’s approach isn’t the trite Peyton Place device of showing the tawdry reality beneath the placid surface. King has more in common with the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, who refuses to separate the peaceful and beautiful from the violent and unmooring in small-town life.
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Well before the narrative reaches the ominous day, King creates a portrait of American life streaked with violence. One incident takes place during the childhood of a man who will grow up to become one of Jake’s GED students. Al has warned Jake that the past itself, determined not to change, will throw every obstacle it can in his way. To see whether he’s right, Jake decides he’ll intercede and stop a nightmare his student lived through as a child. He’s only partly successful, yet he doesn’t think twice about trying again. Here is where King makes us complicit, playing on the sense of justice he believes resides deep in the American character in order to draw us to Jake and his mission, and show how easily, and dangerously, the thought of any bad consequences can be brushed aside. We want to see Jake stop the drunken abuser who’ll murder his family, and if Jake succeeds we’re quite willing for this part of the story to end there. King isn’t. Fittingly, this novel about time travel has a long memory.
Though his treatment of them has sometimes lapsed into caricature, King captures how meager men loom terrifyingly large in the lives of the people they torment. For that reason his portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald is something new in his work. As drawn by King, Oswald is the quintessence of the American loser, a small ferrety presence not given to the terrifying outbursts of King’s usual bullies and bigots. King, who says in the novel’s afterword that he believes Oswald was the lone assassin, understands that Oswald’s puniness is, ironically, just the thing that, in the fevered imaginations of so many, has denied him the glory he was seeking in killing JFK. Who wants to believe that such a nothing of a man is capable of scarring a nation? Certainly no one who wants history to make rational sense. And probably not the readers of a large novel. A book of this size should give us a villain like Bill Sikes or at least Wackford Squeers instead of this scrawny man squirreling away his Russian wife, Marina, and baby daughter in the crummiest apartments, poring over his pathetic leaflets, nursing slights like a moody child.
Even Norman Mailer, who spun the most elaborate JFK conspiracy theories and paid serious attention to others who did, finally accepted Oswald’s guilt but acknowledged that it was Oswald’s puniness that had made his guilt seem so unlikely. King brings that puniness to life in all its grungy detail. Jake moves in across the street from the Oswalds in a Dallas neighborhood stinking of petroleum and raw sewage, the street lined with houses little better than shacks and an ugly Monkey Ward warehouse. He keeps tabs on Oswald and his wife, and the details of their life and the lives around them strand us in a place that geographically, economically and psychically feels as if the New Frontier were taking place on another continent. Cold disgust motivates King’s portrait of Oswald: disgust at what he did, disgust that this amoeba has attached himself to our collective consciousness.
I have no intention of revealing the climax of 11/22/63, but I will say that King does not allow us the comfort of believing in the unassailability of our good intentions. In the way King has of imprinting his nightmares on our memories, by the end of the book he’s freed us from Camelot and its myth of hope, from the idea that everything was all right while it lasted, and would have been had it survived. He’s also trying to free us from—or at least to identify—a few demons of the present.
“On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place,” King writes in the afterword. There are echoes of the protests against President Obama in placards that read Help JFK Stamp Out Democracy. While it’s tempting for the left to feel superior to the thuggish and moronic elements of the radical right, it, too, or at least its bien-pensant caucus, is a target of this novel. There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed with or even angry about Obama’s performance. His persistent attempts to reach a consensus with people whose every utterance demonstrates they’ve abandoned common sense and common decency suggest someone who approaches the presidency with the ameliorating style of corporate management rather than the mixture of vision and street-fighting necessary in a president.
But to listen to the endless parade of white left commentators who have accused Obama of abandoning his base because he hasn’t achieved perfection in politics or in social justice is to realize that the radical right doesn’t have a monopoly on the divisiveness Obama’s presidency has given rise to. I’m not suggesting that Obama’s blackness makes criticizing him off-limits. But the reduction of the meaning of Obama solely to his policy decisions, the implicit dismissal of what the fact of Barack Obama means to people who before him never felt they had a voice in American politics—just as the fact of JFK made other people find their political voice for the first time—is not unlike the blindness King captures in 11/22/63. It is the seed of a reckless politics built on wish fulfillment. The constant pleasure of reading 11/22/63 is, as the National Book Foundation committee noted of King’s work in general, attributable to his belief in “the abiding power of narrative.” For a novelist who has specialized in making the everyday terrifying, 11/22/63 is something new, an alternative reality that tells us there are worse things to be scared of than the world as it is.