Like 99% of authors, Stephen King is at his best when he’s writing about what he knows. And like 99% of wealthy white male authors, Stephen King thinks he knows way more than he actually does.
Right before I finished reading The Drawing of the Three, the ambitious and problematic second volume of King’s seven-part fantasy epic The Dark Tower, the author took to Twitter to weigh in on a subject he should know a thing or two about. The publisher Hachette had decided, after many of its employees walked out in protest, to cancel its plans to publish a new memoir by Woody Allen. You know, that certifiable creep who married his girlfriend’s daughter and was credibly accused of pedophilia? Pretty hard to put your foot in your mouth on this one, right Stevie-boy?
By sharing his “unease,” King is inadvertently also sharing that he doesn’t know (or care) what message it sends when our society gives rich and famous predators like Allen a platform. All he knows (or cares) about is what effect this publishing decision could have on writers like himself. It’s an ignorant, privileged perspective. It’s really hard to read.
And while there’s a lot to like about The Drawing of the Three – a ruined coastal landscape littered with demonic lobster beasts; a quiet, tainted hero with wells of misery drilled into his soul; portals into the human mind that Being John Malkovich would pass off as original a dozen years later – it’s a book with weaknesses that are hard to reckon with, much like the author’s Twitter feed.
While the overarching story is just as broad as its predecessor, following Roland the Gunslinger on his quest to find three spectral doorways, The Drawing of the Three is far more committed to character development, and is more of a page-turner as a result. Roland’s fate is wrapped up in who he meets when he steps through these doors, and King breaks the book up into sections that are laser-focused on the newcomers.
The first is Eddie Dean, a character King could write well in his sleep – a heroin addict from a dysfunctional family. From the moment Roland steps through the door and into Eddie’s mind, The Drawing of the Three becomes an oddly gripping, metaphysical buddy action movie, complete with a climactic shootout at a drug lord’s lair. This is King writing what he knows and boiling it down into Grade A pulp fantasy.
But then comes door number two. We’ve dealt with King’s approach to writing characters of color before in this column; the black people that appeared around the fringes of The Stand were either barbarians, drug addicts or magical exotic creatures. But the character that Roland meets/inhabits when he steps through that second portal makes Jar-Jar Binks seem sensitively rendered. Odetta Holmes is a wealthy black woman in 1960s New York City, a civil rights activist who lost her legs when a psychopath pushed her onto the subway tracks. King writes her as a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with deep reserves of strength just visible beneath the surface. Someone who has had unthinkable violence done to them and uses it as fuel. Someone who fits the description of a gunslinger to a tee. If only King could’ve stopped there.
But no. In a downright meta display of how unqualified the author is to write about the black experience, King gives Odetta a dissociative condition that Eddie incorrectly calls “schizophrenia.” Detta, the character’s alternate personality, is purposely written to be the most vile, violent, racist caricature possible. Other characters in the story comment on this, saying things like “She talked like a cartoon black woman, like Butterfly McQueen gone Looney Tunes,” to remind us that this is a literary device and we can hope and pray that it all will make clear, non-racist sense in the end. It doesn’t help. A warning that the following passage, which depicts an encounter between Detta and the EMT who saved her life after the subway attack, is quite upsetting. Let me be clear that the treatment here is all King – the italics, the caps, the spelling:
“YOU AIN’T NUTHIN BUT A BUNCHA HONKY SONSA BITCHES!” she screamed. Her face was monstrous, her eyes full of hell’s own light. It wasn’t even the face of a human being. “GOAN KILL EVERY MAHFAHIN HONKY I SEE! GOAN GELD EM FUST! GOAN CUT OFF THEIR BALLS AND SPIT EM IN THEY FACES!”
Imagine being truly engrossed by a book that depicts a fantastical world colliding unexpectedly with our own. And then imagine having to contend with this dialogue, and these descriptions, for hundreds of pages. It’s like watching Stephen King tweet passionately about why Elizabeth Warren should be president, and then having to deal with his defense of Woody Allen out of nowhere. It’s literary whiplash.
The Drawing of the Three ends with a fairly legitimate explanation of why Detta existed at all – she is the projection of a childhood trauma, triggered by a white man’s horrific deed. King is very good at writing about trauma, how it traps and intimidates and haunts us as we grow older. It’s a subject he knows well. Why couldn’t he have just stuck with that? Why couldn’t he have just given Odetta some moments of righteous anger, of understandable rage? Why in god’s name did he write Detta like that? I can’t imagine a satisfying explanation, no matter how hard I try.
THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
12. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three