Title: Hearts in Atlantis
Author: Stephen King
Review: Every horror plot hinges on at least one moment of grand imprudence. You really shouldn’t buy that 1958 Plymouth Fury. You really shouldn’t take that job as the hotel’s winter caretaker. And you really shouldn’t dig up your dead son and reinter him in the enchanted Indian burial ground. But of course the hero acts unwisely, because in some dark cellar of his personality he wants the bad thing. And the reader, with a lesser, merely voyeuristic rashness, wants to see him do it. In the efficient economy of the horror novel — too efficient for the psychologically fastidious — the resulting nightmare delivers both a thrill surreptitiously longed for and a punishment for having indulged.
We now know what Stephen King, the master of horror, is afraid of. In ”Hearts in Atlantis,” King takes up the Vietnam War, and it scares him so bad he won’t let his hero act imprudently. Only the book’s minor characters enlist and serve. At the last minute, and with a touch of regret, the book’s central figure thinks better of flunking out of college in 1966. He stays enrolled, and he stays civilian. This time, instead of horror, King has written something with an emotional strategy much slower and much more diffuse. ”Hearts in Atlantis” is a book about survivor guilt.
This may not be immediately clear to the reader. In fact, the reader may be forgiven for suspecting that King has done nothing more artful than bite off more than he can chew. On its surface, as in its depths, this book is messy. For one thing, it’s broken into five pieces, incommensurate in size and genre: two novellas, two short stories and a hasty epilogue.
“Bobby wasn’t exactly sure what his mom did during her days (and her evenings) at the office, but he bet it beat making shoes or picking apples or lighting the Tip-Top Bakery ovens at four-thirty in the morning. Bobby bet it beat those jobs all to heck and gone. Also, when it came to his mom, if you asked about certain stuff you were asking for trouble. If you asked, for instance, how come she could afford three new dresses from Sears, one of them silk, but not three monthly payments of $11.50 on the Schwinn in the Western Auto window (it was red and silver, and just looking at it made Bobby’s gut cramp with longing). Ask about stuff like that and you were asking for real trouble.”
The first novella, ”Low Men in Yellow Coats,” harks back to the world of Ray Bradbury’s ”Dandelion Wine.” It’s 1960, which still feels like the 1950’s. Eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield lives with his widowed, penny-pinching mother in a pretty Connecticut suburb. An odd new lodger named Ted moves in upstairs, and Ted turns Bobby on to ”Lord of the Flies” and ”Village of the Damned.” Bobby becomes a little infatuated with his new adult friend, and Mom worries that the lodger might be ”touching” her son. If only it were so simple. Ted thinks he’s being hunted; he won’t say by whom. He hires young Bobby to keep an eye peeled for lost-pet notices, stray kite tails, stars and moons chalked beside hopscotch patterns and upside-down supermarket notices — the foretokens, Ted believes, of his mysterious persecutors.
”Low Men in Yellow Coats” shows off King’s traditional strengths: his empathy with children’s crushes and fears, his insight into the telepathic-seeming emotional hothouse of a small, isolated family and his ability to summon dread out of plain and familiar things. For most of this novella — roughly half the book — readers get what they expect from the King brand name.
But then something confusing happens. At the end of ”Low Men in Yellow Coats,” King does genre-reassignment surgery. He abruptly grafts fantasy onto small-town Gothic. Universes clash, in a Marvel-meets-DC-Comics kind of way, and the reader glimpses the world of King’s Dark Tower series, his Tolkien-like tetralogy of fantasy novels. The reader’s bewilderment is compounded by Bobby’s self-discovery: he turns out not to be the kind of person he thought he was. Although King opens the door to another world, Bobby doesn’t step into it. The hero of a horror novel would find new reservoirs of courage, and the hero of a fantasy novel would accept the adventure, but Bobby discovers that he isn’t the hero of his own life by the laws of either genre.
It’s risky to disappoint so many of a reader’s expectations at once, and surprising from a writer who enjoys his reputation for satisfying customers — who has called his work ”the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries.” In the book’s second novella, ”Hearts in Atlantis,” King gambles even further.
He writes another tale about being sensible rather than heroic. In 1966, war is chewing up American boys in Vietnam. Pete Riley, a freshman at the University of Maine in Orono, is tempted. (Pete is a continuation of Bobby by other means: they fall for the same girl, they’re never on stage at the same time and Bobby’s copy of ”Lord of the Flies” ends up in Pete’s hands.) Pete is tempted by cards, in particular the game of hearts. The deck is haunted not by demons or ghosts but by the queen of spades, who weighs down whoever takes her with 13 unlucky points.
”You have to work hard at your studies,” Pete’s mother warns him. ”Boys who don’t work hard at them have been dying.” But the appeal of hearts, for Pete, is more murderous than suicidal. Pete’s chief opponent is a ”creepy, small-minded, bad-complexioned gnome” named Ronnie Malenfant. Pete may be flirting with academic failure, but he plays hearts to win. He loves to stick Ronnie with the queen of spades. ”I wanted to wipe the smirk off his hollow, pimply face and silence his grating blare of a laugh,” Pete reports. ”It was mean but it was true.”
Everyone on campus, in fact, is carrying a queen of spades, of one sort or another. The card-playing delinquents are frank about their hostility; they know they’re flunking themselves into war. But the nerdy students who eschew hearts are marshaled into antiwar activism by a force just as uncanny. Peace, after all, is what the dead rest in. The protest movement’s leader is Stokely Jones 3d, a ”New England Heathcliff” on crutches. He envies the health and pleasures of his peers, and, like an animated corpse, he stinks of decay: ”The only smell like it is an electric-train transformer that’s been run too hard for too long.” It’s Stokely’s near suicide that sparks the campus into unified protest. And we learn that Pete’s girlfriend, Carol Gerber, later joins a group resembling the Weather Underground; she helps to blow up six students who are interviewing for jobs with a chemical manufacturer. But although King has written these corners of darkness into his novella, he doesn’t explore them. Carol remains saintly despite her crimes, and Stokely’s death wish is embalmed in the narrator’s nostalgia.
King also fails to say what Pete’s decision to save himself might have cost him, other than a few years spent in political protest. He does note, however, that Phil Ochs, the composer of ”Draft Dodger Rag,” hanged himself. ”The suicide rate among surviving Atlanteans has been pretty high,” King adds.
Self-preservation is a difficult story to tell, and a few evasions may be inevitable. (Witness Bill Clinton’s difficulties explaining how he had handled the draft.) After all, a prudent person resists the unexpected plot twists that would turn his life into a lively read. Like ”Low Men in Yellow Coats,” the novella ”Hearts in Atlantis” is anti-genre fiction — a horror-adventure novel that doesn’t happen, at least not to the hero.
But it does happen to a couple of the minor characters. In the book’s two short stories, the working-class veterans John Sullivan and Willie Shearman are haunted by the war in classic King style, the ghoulish woven into the quotidian. Sullivan’s guilt takes the shape of a murdered Vietnamese woman, who rides shotgun with him in his Chevrolet Caprice. Shearman, for his part, commutes to his penitence. ”Sorry is a full-time job,” Shearman believes, and five, sometimes six days a week he takes the train from his Reagan Democrat suburb to the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he impersonates a blind Vietnam veteran. As he wishes he could explain to the policeman who extorts him, ”What looks fake isn’t always fake.”
Sullivan’s and Shearman’s tales feel more complete than the novellas, but Vietnam’s horror remains off stage, consigned to flashbacks. In ”Hearts in Atlantis,” it’s as though King has written two lengthy prologues and two brief epilogues but left out the novel proper. Or perhaps he hasn’t. The book’s juxtapositions set me wondering: maybe Vietnam is the archetype not only of the otherworldly horror Bobby chooses to avoid in ”Low Men in Yellow Coats” but of all King’s supernatural horror. Perhaps King’s novels have been his way of imagining what it would have been like to go (flat feet, high blood pressure and burst eardrums kept him at home) to a world where the past had an eerily strong grip on the present, where machines seemed sometimes to have more willpower than men, where nice boys found that killing attracted them, where bodies ruptured and burned and stank, where the evil things trying to kill you could look disconcertingly human and where, except in your imagination, it was almost impossible to be heroic.
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