Title: Dream Catcher
Author: Stephen King
Review: When Stephen King was struck by a van in June 1999, suffering hip, leg and lung injuries, his readers quite naturally wondered what would be left of him after the bones healed. Like the rest of humanity, writers hurt in severe accidents don’t always regain their previous abilities. (Hemingway, for example, was never quite the same after a near-fatal airplane crash in Africa when he was 54.) With the publication of ”Dreamcatcher,” his first full-length novel since his accident, and written while he convalesced, King offers his gigantic readership the opportunity to see whether he’s still got the stuff.
They needn’t worry. Set in King’s familiar shotguns-and-pickups milieu of small-town Maine, ”Dreamcatcher” is a frenzied, multilayered, ever-accelerating nightmare. The tale begins as four middle-aged buddies — Beaver, Jonesy, Pete and Henry — take their annual hunting trip in a remote cabin in Maine called Hole in the Wall. As with his previous work, King builds up the details of his characters’ lives in a naturalistic way; we see these men, we hear their banter, we know their fears. In short, we like them, which probably means some of them will die.
Beaver is a jokester carpenter, Pete a hard-drinking car salesman, Henry a psychiatrist contemplating suicide and Jonesy an associate professor at a college in Boston. Jonesy, by the way, is also recovering from a nearly fatal car accident in which he broke two ribs and shattered a hip. (Yes, that sounds a lot like what happened to King, but hold that thought a moment.) Each man has a mild gift of telepathy, which we later learn is the result of their shared high school experience with a retarded boy named Duddits, whom they saved from a gang of sadistic hoods.
Four telepathic men in a hunting cabin in the middle of nowhere is not so creepy, is it? Not until another hunter, McCarthy, stumbles out of a snowstorm. McCarthy is disoriented, losing his teeth and suffering from a shocking flatulence problem — this last perhaps not so surprising, given that the poor guy is unknowingly host to an extraterrestrial weasel who promptly shows us a mouthful of needle-sharp choppers.
Yes, another spaceship has landed on planet earth, and soon our four hunters are separated and fighting for their lives. But haven’t we seen a lot of funny little spacemen before? Sure, King seems to admit (he refers repeatedly to H. G. Wells, ”E.T.” and ”Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), and it doesn’t matter — you’re going to like mine anyway, especially because they spread telepathy and a funny red fuzz that kills people.
The United States government dependably shows up to quarantine the whole tract of woods, blast the remaining aliens and slaughter the animals infected with the nasty fuzz. Leading them is a retired Air Force officer, Abraham Kurtz — another ironic reference — who provides the tough-guy element. Describing the naked and unarmed aliens who have landed, he says: ”I have seen these things at work for 25 years or more, and I tell you this is it, this is the invasion, this is the Super Bowl of Super Bowls, and you fellows are on defense. They are not helpless little E.T.’s, boys, waiting around for someone to give them a New England Tel phone card so they can phone home.”
Although the subsequent action scenes are very well done — King truly delights in the gruesome — it is the novel’s cross-wired psychic structure that is most fascinating. We follow the men forward through the developing alien crisis and backward in time through the remembered boyhoods of the four friends, understanding in the odd logic of telepathy how everything connects to everything else, and in particular how the spooky, funny-talking Duddits connects to aliens.
We hardly care that King’s storytelling virtuosity flatteringly presupposes a corollary story-reading ability; this is a book that has to be read in enormous gulps. The telepathic effect of the alien presence so infects the characters that they constantly overhear one another’s thoughts (which does allow for a certain amount of expeditious plot resolution), and the swirling mind-meld reaches such a bizarre pitch that Jonesy, whose body has been inhabited by an alien named Mr. Gray, is able to communicate in real time with the characters seeking to find him even as they listen to him argue with Mr. Gray over the meaning of what happened with Duddits decades back. Somehow it all makes galloping, hallucinatory sense.
As suggested, ”Dreamcatcher” is suffused with recollections of Jonesy’s car accident, and (notwithstanding King’s own reference to his recovery in an author’s note) it would be disingenuous not to admit the heightened context of these descriptions: ”So often, Jonesy thought, there was no one to blame when the dust cleared. And even if there was, what good did it do? You still had to live with what was left.” Although ”death had brushed by him on a sunny day in March, and Jonesy had no desire to call it back,” he thinks about the accident constantly, wondering if he is ”Jonesy No. 1, the confident pre-accident Jonesy, or Jonesy No. 2, the more tentative survivor who spent so much of his time in a tiresome state of physical discomfort and mental confusion.” Deep into the novel, King conjures not only Jonesy’s painful physical therapy after the accident but the awful event itself: ”He’s unconscious in the back of an ambulance but watching himself, having an actual out-of-body experience.”
Reading through these contemplative passages to find King himself is tricky, of course; a book finally exists independently of its author, and ”Dreamcatcher” is about many more things than Jonesy’s accident. But doing so is irresistible and strangely satisfying, for while providing another complete ”Stephen King” novel, titled ”Dreamcatcher,” King manages to communicate to us directly — and perhaps to himself as well — that he is still very much here, still smiling that scary half-smile of his as we quickly flip the pages.
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