Recommended Reading (and how WAS the new Stephen King?)

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A little while ago I posted an entry about how, with some small trepidation, I was returning to the work of Stephen King after an absence of probably a couple of decades or so. The book that had piqued my interest was his new novel 11.22.63 in which an English teacher from Maine is able to travel back in time to September 1958, with the opportunity to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy a few years later.  This premise appealed to me because, as I stated in that earlier post, the Kennedy assassination had also fascinated me when I was younger–so here, in a neat 800-page bundle, was a happy confluence of two of my early interests.

So how was it?

I’ll start with the admission that, in the last few years, I’ve become a bit mercenary about my books. This is essentially due to the pragmatic concern that I am simply running out of room for them–in my house, they are piled on windowsills, crammed into several bookshelves, heaped by my bed and generally scattered around the house in quietly growing piles here and there. It’s probably fair to say that my wife isn’t all that happy with this gradual colonisation of our living space, but she’s learning to adapt. I have taken to culling them, carting well-chosen boxes of them off to charity shops or secondhand bookshops as donations.  So now, when I finish reading a book, usually the first thing I ask myself is: is it a keeper?

I enjoyed reading 11.22.63. The obvious comment to make is that after the thousand or so novels that he has published (or so it seems, at least!) he should know what he’s doing, and indeed his control of pace and plot are excellent in this latest novel. It transpires, of course, the novel is really not so much about Kennedy, although the sequences where Jake Epping is conducting surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald are well-researched and intriguing.  Rather, the novel charts the course this modern character adopts in a world long gone–he has to adapt (firstly by disposing of his mobile phone, for example, and purchasing some period fashions), obtains teaching work in a small Texas town, falls in love, gets the almighty pisser beaten out of him by bookies unhappy at his success with making wagers at seemingly impossible odds (because, of course, he knows the outcome of all the major sporting events).  Perhaps most interesting is the realisation that apart from a recurring appearance by a character known as the Yellow Card Man, and a brief look at the disastrous consequences of actually preventing the Kennedy assassination, this novel is devoid of any of King’s usual horror motifs. There are splatters of violence, and some superbly tense sequences, but no bogeymen–no hauntings. Could it be that King has moved on?

I don’t know. I was also interested to compare this book to the one I read after it–The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman. As writers, King and Perlman are as Justin Beiber and Led Zeppelin, but they have managed to cover rather similar territory albeit in profoundly different ways.  Perlman’s novel covers a sweep of decades ranging from pre-World War Two Europe to contemporary New York, and traces the gradual apparently unlikely convergence of two narratives–that of a recently released prisoner, Lamont Williams, who is working on probation as a cleaner in a NY Cancer Hospital who wants to reunite with his daughter, and of a Jewish Australian academic, Adam Zignelik, who teaches in the History department of Columbia University and who, for various reasons, sees his career and his lovelife veer somewhat off the rails. Williams befriends an elderly patient at the hospital who relates to the cleaner his experiences of the Holocaust and especially his part in an uprising at Auschwitz, during which German soldiers were killed and one of the crematoria at the infamous death camp destroyed. (I had no knowledge of this before reading the book, I must admit–isn’t fiction a wonderful teacher?)

Both of these books enthralled me and I won’t hesitate to recommend them. If I have to be mercenary, though, Perlman’s is the keeper. Returning to Stephen King was a lovely diversion–a complete entertainment in many ways–but I wouldn’t commit myself to going back there again. Somehow, Perlman gets the edge on him in addressing one of the most horrific events of the century (and there are sections of The Street Sweeper that are completely and simply ghastly; it’s very difficult to conceive just how low the human race sank during those desperate years) and leading his readers inside it, so that the experience is almost tactile. I finished reading it and I thought: Fuck, I wish I could do that.

Happy Reading!