Immediately upon dipping into the first chapter of the latest offering by horrormeister Stephen King, the bibliophile in me is tickled.
We’re transported back to the late 1970s and a remote farmhouse in New Hampshire. Here lives reclusive genius novelist John Rothstein—his character loosely based on JD Salinger—who hasn’t published anything in decades, not since the short story The Perfect Banana Pie (the title an obvious take on Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish).
However, bibliophiles are gossiping about Rothstein. Rumour has it that sequels to his early masterpiece, the great American novel The Runner—read: The Catcher in the Rye—have been stacking up in Rothstein’s safe.
Robbers break into the farmhouse, only in part looking for stashes of cash—for one of them is more than familiar with the author’s work. In fact, this one is a true-blue psycho fan: Morris Bellamy, a twenty-something loosely based on Holden Caulfield, the cynical protagonist of The Catcher…. Bellamy is tired of the older generation’s constant betrayals and, most of all, disappointed by his favourite author’s last full-length novel to be published before he went into hibernation, The Runner Slows Down.
Bellamy knows very well the value of those manuscripts, should they exist and contain material in which The Runner character is further developed. One could argue that by assaulting an author he feels is a ‘sellout’, Bellamy, picks up from where Holden left off—a few years older, but as disgruntled and disturbed as ever, if not more. (Holden hated ‘phoneys’.) In an iconoclastic move, Bellamy shoots the author at point blank, in the head, sending his brains splattering across the wall.
In this macabre way, King begins his exploration into the problematic nature of an iconic fictional character’s—such as Holden Caulfield’s —hold on later literature: “[Morris] had expected some blood, and a hole between the eyes, but not this gaudy expectoration of gristle and bone. It was a failure of imagination, he supposed, the reason why he could read the giants of modern American literature—read them and appreciate them—but never be one.”
From then on, the book pivots on those manuscripts, in two narratives running parallel initially, twenty years apart, only to edge closer with the passing of time, gearing readers towards an inevitable confrontation. After burying the manuscripts, Morris ends up in jail for another crime. What keeps him alive through his sentence is the idea that he’ll get out one day and read the concluding instalments of the American saga.
It is just that he’s 59 when he is paroled and meanwhile, in the recession-hit America of circa 2010, teenager Pete Saubers happens to find the buried trunk, which also contains some $22,000 cash. Times are hard for the Saubers as Pete’s father has lost his job and gotten his legs almost chopped off in a traffic incident involving a psycho in a Mercedes-Benz.
Pete sees in this hidden treasure a chance to rescue his parents from ruin. But he gets dangerously involved with an unscrupulous rare books dealer, Andy Halliday, who happens to be the same man with whom Morris plotted the burglary. Then Kermit William Hodge, a retired police detective, enters the picture…
Stephen King is great at weaving twisted plots and knows how to tighten the screws. He also comes amusingly close to breaking the barrier to metafiction when his protagonist plans how he’ll read the stolen notebooks, “Reading the notebooks there, near the same mountains Rothstein must have looked at while he was writing—that had a certain novelistic roundness, didn’t it? Yes, and that was the great thing about novels: that roundness. The way things always balanced out in the end.”
The only drawback in this otherwise delightfully rounded novel, if there is one, is the occasionally shoddy writing, a certain heavy-handedness, that gives one the feeling that King rushed through the job. A novel about bibliophiles turning into bibliomaniacs ought to be written in more elegant prose. Then again, who am I to complain as long as I can enjoy a racy read?