Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Stephen King’s latest book is an anthology of four novellas: 1922, Big Driver, Fair Extension, and A Good Marriage. Dedicated to his wife, this 368-page volume dispenses with King’s customary foreword or preface, but contains an “Afterword” of three pages. It’s thinner than most of King’s books; apparently his accident has had lasting effects upon his prolificacy or his age is starting to catch up with him.
In any case, the stories start in an intriguing enough manner. 1922 asks readers to be priests or police detective or maybe judges, starting, as it does, with the protagonist-narrator’s “confession.” Written on letterhead stationary from the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha, Nebraska, and dated April 11, 1930, the long, long missive recounts Wilfred Leland James’ planning and execution, with the aid of his fourteen-year-old son, Henry Freeman James, of the murder of his wife, “a thing,” he says, “I regret even more bitterly than the crime” (3). According to the salutation, “To Whom it May Concern,” Wilfred’s not sure who or who not may be “concerned” about his “confession.”
So far, so good; readers are apt to be hooked. King’s protagonist-narrator is confessing to a crime involving both his son, as co-conspirator, and his wife, the boy’s mother, as their victim
It’s an unusual situation made more interesting by the motive for the murder: “The issue that led to my crime and damnation was 100 acres of good land in Hemingford Home, Nebraska” (3). My own interest in the story flags fairly quickly. In fact, my interest in fiction has declined quite a bit of late. However, King manages to keep my attention for a few more pages of his opening story. I want to hear more concerning the protagonist-narrator’s seemingly absurd motive for killing his wife and the mother of his son, and I’d like to know what in the world would have prompted the boy to enlist as a co-conspirator in his own mother’s murder. In addition, Wilfred tells his wife, who wants to sell their land and open a dress shop in Omaha, “I will never live in Omaha,” despite the address of the hotel in which, according to the stationary he’s writing upon, which is “Omaha, Nebraska.”
“This is ironic,” he admits to readers, “considering where I now live,” although he also points out that “I will not live here for long” (3-4), and his next statement is curious enough to make readers continue to read for the next paragraph or two, at least: “I know this as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls” (4). Hearing sounds in walls (or floors, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or the attic, as in The Exorcist) was an old trick even in the days of the Victorian Gothic novels, but it may still manage, even if only slightly, to command a small amount of readers’ attention.
The country bumpkin dialect and outlook are also mildly interesting (but much less so since his portrayal of Jordy Verrill in Creepshow). His protagonist-narrator’s allusions to aspects of his own personality as “a Conniving Man” who himself has a “Hopeful man” inside him and his personification of wife’s lascivious tendencies as a “Vulgar Woman” are amusing at first, but soon become tedious, and by the time that King starts to set forth his hayseed characters’ theology, the story’s opening becomes--well, less than engaging. At 131 pages, King’s story is maybe 100 pages too long, and I lose interest altogether by page ten. Since King is not known for satisfying endings to his stories (It and Under the Dome have to be two of his absolute worst), I sigh and move on. . . .
Maybe the next narrative, Big Driver, will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me dares to hope.
Unfortunately, Big Driver veers toward the curb on page one (page 135 of the book), paragraph two, when his omniscient narrator compares the story’s character, Tess, an elderly public speaker and author of a dozen popular novels about the Willow Grove Knitting Society, to “a good little squirrel” who lives “well on the money her books” earn, “putting away acorns for the winter.” On the next page, my interest virtually flatlines as King, via his narrator, offers another of his tedious catalogues of contemporary annoyances and frustrations, this one concerning airline travel:
It wasn’t that she was afraid of flying, or hesitant about billing the organizations that engaged her for travel expenses just as she billed them for her motel rooms (always nice, never elegant). She just hated it: the crowding, the indignity of the full-body scans, the way the airlines now had their hands out for what used to be free, the delays. . . .and the inescapable fact that you were not in charge. That was the worst. Once you went through the interminable security checkpoints and were allowed to board, you had put your most valuable possession--your life--into the hands of strangers (136).Time is a valuable commodity, and readers desire and deserve much more than self-indulgent lists of petty grievances in the guise of characterization. King has shown that he has the talent to do better, but he doesn’t bother; after all, Big Driver is just a novella, not a novel (and, lately, he hasn’t been bothering all that much even in his novels).
Still, I’m game for a bit more. Tess is mildly interesting as a character, despite the familiar complaints about air travel that King, via his omniscient narrator, puts in her mouth--or her mind.
But the next paragraph, which is supposed to be a transition, perhaps, between air travel and highway travel, linking title to narrative, repeats the same lame list of petty grievances, this time about ground transport:
Of course that was also true of the turnpike and interstates she almost always used when she traveled, a drunk could lose control [as King has reminded his readers seemingly countless times since a drunk driver nearly killed King himself, back in ‘99 and the author considered retirement], jump the median strip, and end your life in a head-on collision (they would live; the drunks, it seemed, always did), but at least when she was behind the wheel of her car, she had the illusion of control. And she liked to drive. It was soothing. She had some of her best ideas when she was on cruise control with the radio off (136).We normally think of a cliché as a trite phrase, but, of course, a cliché is also a trite thought (or part of a thought, anyway), for what is the definition of a sentence, besides a group of words with a subject and a predicate, but “a complete thought”? King certainly gives his readers clichés, both of phrasing and of thinking, in abundance in his fiction, as he does in Big Driver. Enough, though, is not only enough; often, it is too much. In Full Dark, No Stars, it is too much very quickly, indeed.
Since the disappointments of King’s last several novels, Under the Dome, especially, I have opted not to buy any more of his books. If I want to read one, I wait until the university or public library acquires it or go without. This way, if and when (most likely, when) King proves his latest effort not worth my effort, I’m only out a little time instead of a little money. Times are hard, and I can’t afford to be as forgiving of King’s self-indulgences, laziness, and “Big Mac and fries” literary style as I tended to be when times were more flush.
Leaving Tess behind with her worries about airports and interstates, I travel ahead 113 pages to Fair Extension. Maybe it will be better, the Hopeful Man inside me (hardly) dares to hope.
Echoing Big Driver, the opening paragraph doesn’t make the likelihood of the story’s offering of anything more than prosaic insights seem very likely:
[Dave] Streeter only saw the sign because he had to pull over and puke. He puked a lot now, and there was very little warning--sometimes a flutter of nausea, sometimes a brassy taste in the back of his mouth, and sometimes nothing at all; just urk and out it came, howdy--do. It made driving a risky proposition, yet he always drove a lot now, partly because he wouldn’t be able to by late fall and partly because he had a lot to think about. He had always done his best thinking behind the wheel (249).No doubt, he also finds driving “soothing,” especially with the “cruise control” on and “the radio off .”
King has been praised for connecting with the average Jane and Joe among the nation’s middle class, but it’s one thing to allude to popular culture to make such a link and another thing altogether to refer to stereotypical sentiments and commonplace thoughts; the latter allusions are not only patronizing, but they are also more humdrum than the humming of tires drumming on the pavement of a King story about cars (Christine or From a Buick 8) or paragraphs such as these, from Big Driver and Fair Extension.
Less hopeful than ever the Hopeful Man inside me switches from two- to four-wheel drive and forges ahead, to the story’s “Harris Avenue Extension, a broad thoroughfare” that runs “two miles beside the Derry County Airport and the attendant businesses,” most of which are “motels and warehouses.” The buildings don’t sound all that promising, but, hey, it’s Derry, a place where It, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, and Dreamcatcher unfold; maybe there’s enough horror left in the burg to fuel a novella.
Sure enough, despite a few backfires and hesitations, the story succeeds in moving forward, although its Big Driver, King, can’t resist a few byways and alleyways, none especially scenic, and, by skipping the side excursions and detours and staying with the dialogue, I can get through the Derry landscape to the narrative’s dead end. (Tip for those who have tried but just can’t quite kick the King habit: when the story bogs down, as it almost always does, sooner or later, just start reading only the dialogue, dipping into the exposition only when--and only as long as--necessary to pick up any lost plot threads; this way, you’ll be doing what King or his editor should have done and will be able to finish the story just after sunset.)
What’s sold in Derry, at Fair Extensions, are extensions of almost anything, penis lengths included, the story’s salesman assures the protagonist, in a bit of prepubescent dialogue that one could expect to encounter only in a King story:
“If you were a man with a small penis--genetics can be so cruel--I’d offer you a dick extension.”In Danse Macabre, King admits, “If I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” Apparently, the Big Mac and Fries of the literary world means this not only about horror but about both sex and humor as well.
Streeter was amazed and amused by the baldness of it. [Readers over fourteen years old may be “amazed,” but they’re unlikely to be “amused,” no matter how bald King’s penis jokes may be.] For the first time in a month--since the diagnosis--he forgot he was suffering from an aggressive and extremely fast-moving form of cancer. “You’re kidding” [Readers can only hope he is, but, alas, he isn't.]
“Oh, I’m a great kidder, but I never joke about business. I’ve sold dozens of dick extensions in my time, and was for awhile [sic] known in Arizona as El Pene Grande. . . .” (252-3).
In any case, once Streeter accepts a life extension of somewhere between fifteen and twenty years, for a fee, of course, his cancer is miraculously cured, and his life gets better and better. The fee? Streeter has to curse someone to receive the salesman’s life extension (shades of Needful Things; he chooses Tom Goodhugh, his friend since childhood, who has always had more and better things than Streeter, or as Streeter puts it (to himself, not Goodhugh), “you had everything and I had cancer” (277). Just as Streeter’s life gets better and better, Tom’s gets worse and worse, with his wife Norma dying of cancer, his daughter developing pyorrhea and losing her teeth and later giving birth to a dead baby, one of his sons having a heart attack at age twenty two and suffering brain damage while the other son is imprisoned for spousal abuse, Tom’s fortune becoming all but exhausted, and his own health fast deteriorating.
Given an extension of life and astonishingly good luck, Streeter seems to have it all; still, when Venus appears “above the airport, glimmering against the darkening sky,” he takes this opportunity to wish for even more (280).
A high school student could argue that this story represents a not-so-sly satire concerning the haves and the have-nots and a sharper rebuke of materialism, rivalry, one-upmanship, envy and greed, and probably get a “B+” for his or her effort, but, beyond the story’s being good fodder for secondary school lit crit, the story, although not as puerile and pedestrian as the two that come before it, certainly isn’t likely to win its author any awards or accolades and deserves none. (This story, too, by the way, includes a drunk driver--and another penis reference: “Stick your mortal penis in her and pretend she’s your best friend’s wife” ).
Having read one of the three and enough of the other two to know that I didn’t want to read them, I kept on trucking, entering the final leg of the journey, A Good Marriage, the Hopeful Man inside me on the brink of despair, but wanting there to be a reason for the long trip he’s been on.
I’ll leave the last story for you to review yourselves, Constant Reader, saying only that the ending is poignant, in a perverse way, and shows that King can write a neat narrative when he wants to do so, yes, he can.
The “Afterword” is King’s last word on the tales he tells in Full Dark. The first half or so is much like the first half of his anthology: it treads familiar territory, recalling his early writing and mentioning a couple of his favorite authors (George Orwell and Frank Norris) and taking the time to poke a political enemy--this time, in very ungentlemanly fashion--Sarah Palin. (At least, he left Willow alone.) He also recites the ancient litany of his being, if nothing else, a truth teller who represents human behavior as it really is, warts and all. It’s what he tries to do, once again, he confesses, in Full Dark. He concludes the anthology by identifying his inspirations for the stories: a nonfiction book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael lesy (1922); a woman with a flat tire talking to a trucker at a rest stop (Big Driver); a golf balls vendor who does business in Bangor, Maine, alongside the Hammond Street Extension (Fair Extension); and Dennis Rader and his wife (A Good Marriage). For King, all truly is grist for the mill, although his "Constant Reader" may disagree.
The list price for Full Dark, No Stars is $27.99. I borrowed a hardback copy from the library for nothing. Had I paid for the privilege of reading it, I’d have felt ripped off at a twenty-seventh of the price I’d paid, but I figure the library charged me about what the book is worth. I say this with disappointment, for I have enjoyed King’s fiction in the past, just not for a long time now. Nevertheless, I contend that King is still a talented writer, inside whom, unfortunately there is a Hack Writer who, of late, has called the shots quite a few times too many. Maybe, if King can’t or won’t do better than Full Dark, No Stars, he should retire, and the sooner, the better. After all, one of his sons, Joe Hill, seems ready to carry the torch, and Stephen has killed enough trees already--unless, the Hopeful Man inside me hopes, unless he can and will write a worthy book, for he can, oh, yes, he can!
King, Stephen. Full dark, no stars. New York: Scribner, 2010.