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Hearts in Atlantis

by Stephen King

Few things are more interesting to me than a good bildungsroman and few things less so than hearing some baby boomer yak-yak about the sixties, so Stephen King's latest fiction, Hearts in Atlantis, inevitably seems schizophrenic. At times, I couldn't put the book down; other times I wanted to throw it across the room in frustration.

Five stories linked by both character and theme, Hearts in Atlantis begins with the novella, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," which is the best story here. It's 1960 and Bobby Garfield, 11, lives with his mother in Harwich, Maine, and pals around with John Sullivan and Carol Gerber. They watch out for the bullies from the local Catholic school but that's the extent of their fears. Then an old man moves into the top floor of the Garfield's rooming house and becomes a kind of father-figure for fatherless Bobby. He teaches him about literature, which gives King a chance to obliquely slam his critics. The old man tells Bobby:

"There are also books full of great writing that don't have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words — the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book."

The first book that Bobby treasures is William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and in that novel the children's reversion to savagery prefigures the horrors eventually encountered by Bobby and Carol and John. One can take things a step further. In King's hands, Lord of the Flies becomes a metaphor for the entire 1960s. The sweet children at the beginning of the decade reverted, by the end, to savagery in the jungles of Vietnam and on the anarchic streets of America.

The horrors in Harwich are all come to a head on Ugly Thursday. Innocence is lost. Childhood is over but it was a helluva ride. This is the part of the collection I couldn't put down. I wound up reading it into the night. I'd tell myself, "Okay, I'll only read until the next section," but then the beginning of that section would hook me as well. I finished the novella at three in the morning and had to be up at seven for work. I stumbled through the next day.

I might have read all night but Bobby Garfield's story ended and the titular novella, "Hearts in Atlantis," began — a first-person account of a college student at the University of Maine in 1966 — and it pissed me off. Who was this jerk? Why should anyone care about an obsessive hearts game in a college dorm? I certainly didn't care for the narrator's main theme: the sixties as a kind of Atlantis that has disappeared forever from view. Shut up. Carol Gerber makes an reappearance here as a sharp co-ed who is the narrator's first lover; and the main, unresolved horror from the first novel is alluded to (subtly) in the physical appearance of the obnoxious hearts shark, Ronnie Malenfant, but nothing quite comes of it. Whereas the first novella took bold leaps into the science fiction realm, "Hearts in Atlantis" remains stolidly in our all-too-familiar reality. The great confrontation here is not between innocence and horror but between petty authority and pathetic rebellion. The rallying point is a peace symbol. The narrator bemoans his lost Atlantis but to me the whole thing didn't sink fast enough.

The final short stories deal with Vietnam from the relatively safe perspective of the eighties and nineties. Bobby Garfield's baseball glove becomes a talisman similar to the Bobby Thomson homerun ball in Don DeLillo's Underworld. The writing is fine but the stories just aren't there.

Still, Stephen King fascinates. When he is on, as in the first novella, there is no better story-teller. I once had a British writing teacher who would say of a well-written sentence, "Spot on," and King is constantly so. "He took a final drag of his cigarette," King writes, "then flicked it away. It hit the cement walk and fountained sparks." King is able to describe both the quotidian and the existential, and some of his metaphors are truly amazing. Bobby's mother, a complex, distant woman, says something nasty to the old man living on the third floor, and King writes, "...although Bobby didn't understand the remark, he was astonished by the cruelty he sensed in it, embedded like a piece of glass in a marshmallow."

A page later King's cloying scenes seem straight out of Boy's Life magazine.

Overall, one could say that Hearts in Atlantis is itself like the 1960s. It begins with such promise and then degrades into a little too much self-indulgence.

—October 2, 1999

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard