Friday, November 26, 2010

On "Different Seasons" by Stephen King ****

It's taken me forty years to get around to reading Stephen King. I don't have much of a taste for horror novels--at least I don't think I do (though the occasional uncanny/gothic tale of Borges or Poe has some appeal)--and that is one thing that has kept me away. There is also King's reputation as a popular author, and I guess I'm a bit of a snob, because I rarely give such novelists much of a try. But there is a reason they are popular, and that is often because they are good. When King won the O'Henry Award some fifteen years ago (for a story I never did get around to reading), I realized that I would have to actually give him a try, that I would have to take him off the list of people I might one day theoretically read but probably won't ever find time for to the list of people I would actually read. I'm glad I finally did, even if it took my fifteen years to get to him.

The book that has always held the most appeal to me in his body of work is Different Seasons, largely because the four novellas within it are the basis for two well-respected movies (and one not so well respected)--none of which I've seen--and because the work showcases King outside of the horror genre. I enjoyed three of these pieces greatly; the other--well, let's just say that if I had read only it, I probably would never be willing to return to King again.

The book opens with "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." It's a simple enough tale about a jail break. King himself says he's not much of a stylist (although I think he could be and sometimes is), but the rather pedestrian prose works very well here, given that he's writing from the point of view of a convicted convict who has spent virtually his whole adult life behind bars. The plot itself is interesting--what jail breaks aren't?--if a bit expected (what prison narrative wouldn't include a jail break?). But what really shines here is the long--forging more than half the story--account of prison life. I felt myself really attached to King's characters, especially Andy Dufresne. There comes a moment in the story when readers realize that Dufresne will be in jail for life, no matter whatever amount of innocence he may wield, and it's incredibly heartbreaking. Any writer who can make me feel that passionately about his characters has proved his worth to me. It's not easy, and it's a rare treat.

"The Body," the third story here, is the source for the movie Stand by Me. Like "Shawshank," it focuses on some plot elements that are wholly expected. It's about four boys at the end of summer, going out to look for a dead kid's body--just for the fun of it (and maybe a little fame). We get all the nostalgic things we'd expect from a story about youngsters--skinny dipping, various fights. But that's part of the story's charm, the way that King brings the essence of childhood summers back. And then he does some things that are different. The four kids each have serious problems, to be expected, but we see two of them, the narrator and his friend Chris, as standouts, kids who are ultimately going to try to break past their bleak surroundings. (In this sense, I was reminded of *Good Will Hunting.*) But King doesn't just hand us some happy ending. There are a lot of disappointments that crop up, and although the story does a lot we expect, it turns a lot of those expectations around to things we don't expect and that are ultimately sad.

"The Breathing Method," the last story, has a gothic charm. It's about a club, a storytelling club, in a mysterious house that has rooms upon rooms upon rooms where people can get lost and books that don't show up in any library catalog. But that's just the setting, which acts as a frame for a well-done story about a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock in a time when such a thing held a degree of shame greater than it does now. It's a strange piece, ultimately, not unlike some of Poe's mystery work, but it also introduces us to some very well-drawn characters. More a long short story than a novella, I would definitely have taken notice of this piece had it been in a collection of other works closer to its length.

The longest work in this book, forging the second novella, is "Apt Pupil." It's unfortunate that it takes up so much of the book as a whole, for it's the least fun. Managing not to put it down was a chore. The story involves a kid with a fascination for Nazi lore who discovers a real-life Nazi living in his neighborhood. This could be a story about two people coming to know each other more deeply as people--and in a way it is--but it seems more intent on being a story about disgusting its readers. I couldn't have cared less about the kid or his new friend. The kid is mean and weird and evil. The Nazi, perhaps a victim of circumstance, turns out to be mean and weird and evil as well. Much is said in the text about how normal people can fall to such low levels, but everything about the plot itself suggests that these are not normal people, that those among us who relish in maiming others are different from us. And in that sense, the novella seems a failure to me. We never identify with the characters, so the more debased they become does not lend credence to the idea that they are normal, even as the logic of the story (which is shaky in its first half) starts to make more sense. The characters descend into insanity, but we're never convinced they were sane to start. Add the this piece's clunky prose into the mix, and the tale is a tough one to slog through.

Still, the other three tales here proved to me that I need to give King some more attention, pull out some of his other books, and start reading. The guy is a master of plots and characterization.

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