Saturday, February 9, 2008

Duma Key

Well, I did it--I bought the new Stephen King. I've posted semi-copiously here about my rocky relationship with the guy (click the tag below), and wasn't sure what to expect this time around. I'm pleased to say the book is actually pretty good, one of his best in a really long time.

Now, if you don't like King, all the things you don't like about him are on display here: his florid elaborations upon completely obvious things, using as many words as possible; his gratuitous text formatting!!; copious quotations from pop songs; pointless literary references; and lots of random name-dropping of places he likes going and people he knows. But if you like King, you've learned to tolerate these habits--they're like grandpa's potbelly and scratchy beard. And here, he seems to have them under control.

Mostly. This book is an example of the subgenre King excels in--a man, transformed either by tragedy or personal weakness, retreats to a creepy house in the middle of nowhere to try to make art. Mayhem ensues. This time, it's a building contractor from the midwest who loses an arm and some of his mind in a crane accident; the subsequent changes to his personality precipitate a divorce. He holes up on the Florida Gulf Coast (right down the road from my grandma's condo, actually, so I know all the places he's talking about) and starts painting pictures, which turn out to be, um, channeling an evil spirit.

The last fifth is pretty much skippable--it involves the compulsory mano-a-mano battle against the baddies, and you've already read it--but the rest is actually quite wonderful. The protagonist is distinctive, the supporting cast hugely memorable (even if they all talk in pithy vulgarisms at all times), and there is plenty to enjoy before the expository-dialogue-packed denoument. King is terrific on the act of artistic creation; it's his favorite thing in the world to write about, and he is great at ferreting out its darker aspects.

King got a lot of loving attention for his recent attempt to write a literary novel; personally, I couldn't get through Lisey's Story, and I don't understand why he wrote it. His careful attempt to introduce restraint into his writing only made his essential unrestrainability all the more obvious, and I feared that he was going to continue on this campaign of trying to please the very people he's been calling snobs his entire life. (See my steam-puffing-out-of-ears post about his Best American anthology.)

Happily, those fears were unfounded. Duma Key is a hugely entertaining and intelligent piece of work, with a dumb ending. Glad to have ol' grandpa back, scratchy beard and all.


aos said...

Though I have liked some King quite a bit I stopped reading him partly because I could not relate to the obsession with high school. Too many of his characters were either actually in that most uninteresting of all places or they lamented the fact that they no longer were there.

Anonymous said...

My King reading slowed to a stopped too. On Writing is the only King book I re-read on a consistent basis. His selection for BASS seemed predictable and still the best for this decade is the Michael Chabon edition. By the way, I liked Joseph Epstein's "My Brother Eli" because I thought it was a crack on Phillip Roth, but King really disappointed by not adding Susan Straight's "El Ojo de Aqua" which was a hell of a story.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the Straight...will look for it...and yeah, I really threw a hissy fit about that BASS. On Writing really is a good book, especially for a beginner...and I love how the producers of Lost used his numbered-bunny metaphor in the notorious Orchid Station Orientation Video:

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