Catching Up with King: The Dark Tower, Vol. II

The_Drawing_of_the_ThreeLike 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) 492bc19c230e7702d564f9920c9af2b491d1b7d4.jpgabout 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.

41RzzIi7EWL._SL300_.jpgThe 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 9780451163523-usdescription 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!”

71eohvmV5ELImagine 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

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Doctor Sleep

6. The Talisman

7. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

8. 11/22/63

9. On Writing

10. The Stand

11. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

12. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three

13. Bag of Bones

 

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

The_Gunslinger2

If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining