North by Northeaster

After writing the rulebook, Stephen King throws it away

The name Stephen King creates some expectations: angry telekinetic teenagers, zombie pets, homicidal motor vehicles. But not much happens in The Colorado Kid: Big-city journalist Hanratty comes to Moose-Lookit Island, Maine, in search of material for a series on "Unexplained Mysteries"; old-fogy local newspaperman Vince Teague and his playfully named sidekick Dave Bowie (the entire staff of the Weekly Islander) fob him off with hoary tales about shipwrecks and strange lights off the coast; the outsider leaves on the next ferry. The real mystery begins when dewy-faced Stephanie McCann—assigned to the Maine paper for a post-graduate internship—notices Vince pocketing the hundred bucks Hanratty has left to cover the cost of their lobster rolls. Vince and Dave lead Stephanie through a question-and-answer session in which she proves her mettle as an investigative reporter by figuring out why he did it. Once she passes this test, the two old men induct her into the guild of journalists by telling her the story of an unsolved mystery too private—and too genuinely mystifying—to confide to Hanratty's readers in The Boston Globe.

Sound modest? It is, but it's also a small masterpiece, a powerful metafiction by a natural storyteller exploring the limits of his art. Despite the paranormal trappings, King's work has always been driven by his interest in human psychology; he's at his best in novels like Misery (1987) and Needful Things (1991), which explore the dark desires and not-so-hidden needs of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. On Writing, King's excellent 2000 memoir cum advice manual, showed him to be a superb stylist as well as a thoughtful practitioner of his craft, and this novella represents a practical illustration of that book's lessons. Both volumes provide indispensable reading for the beginning novelist.

Stephanie's professional coming-of-age involves learning what happens when a mystery can't be solved—when all you've got is "a bunch of unconnected facts surrounding a true unexplained mystery." After two local teenagers find a man's body on the beach one morning in 1980, Vince says, "there was nothing but unknown factors, and hence there was no story. . . . People don't like things like that." The unexplained mystery of the so-called Colorado Kid—his body only identified years later by the out-of-state tax-stamp on the cigarettes in his pocket—differs from the detective shows on television or Hanratty's features for the Globe because those have only one unknown thing per story: Moose-Lookit's very own church-picnic poisoning can be attributed to the secretary's despondency following the end of her affair with the pastor, the local wreck of the Pretty Lisa Cabot to Prohibition-era gunrunning. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end is always a happy one, no matter how gruesome or ghoulish it may be on the face of things. But a story without an ending leaves readers deeply unsettled, a new twist on King's trademark handiness with the uncanny.

Some of the material here feels overly familiar: The two old-guy Maine reporters speak in textbook local color, and the cynical reader may find the novel's coming-of-age aspect sentimental. A few minor details breach the story's realism: In 1980, for instance, there would have been no Starbucks in Denver, Colorado, a distracting lapse in a tale so concerned with verisimilitude. But these small weaknesses don't detract from the novel's great pleasure: its persistent and slyly self-aware subversion of the expectations all readers—including the characters themselves—bring to a detective story. At one point Stephanie realizes that the dead man's widow was "a real person, and not just a chess-piece in an Agatha Christie whodunit or an episode of Murder, She Wrote"; Vince speaks ruefully of expecting the widow to be "a pale and dark-haired beauty. What I got was a chubby redhead with a lot of freckles." Like these characters, the narrator plays with precedents in television, literature, and film: Stephanie looks "prim as the schoolmarm in a John Ford Western," while Vince sees himself as a stereotype from the kind of movie "where the newspaper feller with the arm-garters on his shirt and the eyeshade on his forread gets to yell out 'Stop the presses!' in the last reel." The challenge involves fighting the impulse to even out the rough edges of a story for the sake of a satisfying ending: Late in the book, Vince warns Stephanie that she's "still expectin Rex Stout to come waltzin out of the closet, or Ellery Queen arm in arm with Miss Jane Marple."

King is especially well served by his publisher, Hard Case Crime, a new imprint dedicated to publishing recent and classic hardboiled crime novels in a compact mass-market paperback format that faithfully reproduces the lurid covers (this one from an original painting by Glen Orbik) of the 1950s drugstore paperback. The book's material form gives bite to its clever reflections on deduction and detection, though they owe more to Conan Doyle than to Mickey Spillane. The spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories looms over these pages (Vince invokes that character's dictum that "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"), and the short snappy chapters give the impression of an Encyclopedia Brown all grown up and ready to work. Harold Bloom dubbed the National Book Foundation's decision to award King its 2003 lifetime achievement award "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life," but such contempt is woefully misplaced. The novella ends with a narrative refusal that brings to mind the famous "Conclusion, in Which Nothing Is Concluded" of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, and deserves in both its conception and its execution a place beside the classic tales of Poe, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, and the 20th-century masters of pulp.


Jenny Davidson is the author of a novel,Heredity (Soft Skull). She blogs at Light Reading (jennydavidson.blogspot.com)

 
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