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?