Sunday, October 13, 2002

Stephen King explores themes of the 1960s, and the effects that decade has had on subsequent years, in his book Hearts In Atlantis. This book is a kind of hybrid work: it is part novel and part short-fiction collection. I use the term "short fiction" loosely; two of the five stories collected here are long enough to be books on their own right, especially the introductory work, "Low Men in Yellow Coats", which apparently forms the basis for the recent film called Hearts In Atlantis. The five stories are fairly self-contained, each having a different protagonist, but those protagonists all share in common some of the same characters who move through their lives. One effect of this construction is that while we often identify the effects that others in our lives have on our own, we don't often consider the effects that people we have never met -- or even known about -- can have on the shape of our lives. So, if the first-person narrator of the second novella ("Hearts In Atlantis") never meets Bobby Garfield (the protagonist of "Low Men In Yellow Coats"), his life is still affected by things Bobby did as a child. This interconnectedness of all our fates seems to be a theme of King's in the entire work.

The stories here are not typical King horror; in fact, only three of them deal directly with any kind of supernatural event. "Low Men In Yellow Coats" is one of those stories where the young kid, whose life could be tilted in any of several directions, is profoundly shaped by the arrival of a somewhat mysterious stranger. Young Bobby Garfield lives alone with his mother, a woman who for one reason or another isn't totally capable of real emotion (his father has passed away as the book begins). He desperately wants a new bike for his birthday, but his mother instead gives him an adult library card -- which he uses under the increasing tutelage of his new upstairs neighbor, Ted Brautigan, one of those older figures who knows many things and is also haunted...both figuratively and literally. I enjoyed this story, even though it is basically The Man Without A Face with a supernatural element; but I must note that the supernatural element is a bit disappointing. The book appears to be a tangential part of King's ongoing Dark Tower series, none of which I've read, so the bits that deal with that part of his story lost a great deal of their significance to me. Better, though, is the fact that Mr. Brautigan's effect on Bobby is not totally positive. In many stories like this, the young kid goes on to be a fine, upstanding young man after the itinerant teacher leaves his life. That's not the case here. The dark forces that King employs so often are not done with Bobby, not at all.

The second novella, "Hearts In Atlantis", has no supernatural element at all. It's the story of a group of college students and their bizarre obsession with the card game "Hearts". These young men want to do nothing but play the game, which takes over their lives even as the events of the 60s -- the Vietnam War, peace protests, et cetera -- spin around them. This story has the kind of feel that King achieved in "The Body" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption", and it is quite successful.

Less successful are the remaining stories in the book, although they are not without their charms. "Blind Willie" is the story of a Vietnam veteran who may -- or may not, it seems -- have figured out a scam by which to earn a lot of money, although his reasons for carrying out the scam are not, it turns out, based on selfishness. "Why We're In Vietnam" is a strange kind of ghost story -- I'm not sure I understood it, but I enjoyed its tone and surprising ending. The book ends with "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling", in which two characters are reunited after many years. Not, as it happens, the characters that I wanted to see reunited; but it's an interesting reunion nonetheless.

Hearts In Atlantis is not a perfect book; its very structure makes it feel uneven, with the three brief tales feeling somewhat insubstantial, following as they do two longer, more "complete" stories. But it is an interesting analysis of the time of the 1960s and the feelings that decade still evokes on those who lived through them. (I missed the 1960s by two years, it turns out.) King writes at one point: "Although we've forgotten the language we spoke in those years...sometimes a word or two comes back....And sometimes, in my dreams and memories..., I smell the place where I spoke that language with such easy authority: a whiff of oranges, a scent of oranges, and the fading smell of flowers."

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