Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One at a time, I guess

So I've read half of another book, but not in order, and I'm about to lend it to someone else, so I don't know when I'll finish it.  Also, my reading schedule has been very wonky lately.  Hopefully I'll catch up in the summer. 

Anyway, I recently finished another Stephen King book that I picked up more or less on a whim, so I'll go ahead and talk about it now.

The Dead Zone
by Stephen King
426 pages
Penguin Books USA Inc., NY

Here was a book that I just felt really let down by.  I never thought it was bad, but I always felt like it was misfiring somewhere.  It would captivate me for a few chapters at a time and then just sort of amble into fairly uninteresting character development or political back story for long stretches. It was still fun to read because I enjoy King's style, but I just wasn't able to get into this world as easily as I've been able to access the Tower, Tom Gordon, The Stand, or even Cell.

Well, it took me a little while, but I did finally figure out why that is, and I don't think either the book nor I were really at fault.

The premise of the story is pretty good.  A guy has an auto accident and experiences some massive head trauma, spends four years in a coma, suddenly wakes.  When he wakes, he can tell things about people through touching them.  Secret things.  Sometimes good, sometimes really dark and scary.  Sometimes it's seeing into the future.  Specific details are often a bit hazy, and it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen, he can't control when it's going to happen, and it almost always leads him to take action whenever he can.  So not the most original concept in the world, but in the hands of a guy who made a book about people turned into psychic zombies by cell phones work, it could go to some really cool places. 

Only it didn't seem to.  It was more a series of episodes with interludes where the protagonist (Johnny Smith) would try to run away from everything to live a "normal" life while his mother's dying words (about accepting God's gift) haunted him.  Eventually, Johnny brushes up against a U.S. House of Representatives hopeful and discovers that the man is actually very evil and will soon become President and will start a nuclear war.  (And I guess that's sort of a spoiler, but it's set up very early in the book.  This ominous evil man who doesn't really play into Johnny's story for 3/4 of the book but clearly has political ambitions pops up from time to time, and if you've read King you know they're going to end up as enemies)  To be honest, I was pretty let down by this development.  Really? I thought. You have a guy who can see the future, and you're using him to expose...get this...a crooked politician???  Riveting.  Don't let the Bad Man run for office, Johnny!

However, as I reflected back on the book about a day after I finished it, I thought about what a different world 2011 is from the 1979 of Stephen King.  The Cold War is harsh reality.  Nixon just happened.  Carter just happened.  The feel-good Regan era has not happened.  Not only were Americans unhappy, they're scared.  They wondered if everybody was keeping secrets from them.  They wondered if anybody, especially those in power, could really ever be trusted.  And so, bang.  King creates a protagonist who discerns secrets with a touch and unleashes him on the heart of America's fears: crooked politics and nuclear war.  Actually pretty chilling stuff in context. 

So, no, I'm probably not going to read The Dead Zone again.  It's not one of King's long-standing classics.  I am not, however, sorry I read it, and I imagine if I'd been around to read it in the late 1970s it would have either been terrifying or cathartic. 

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