This book is, in a word, beautiful.
I still remember receiving my hardback copy one Christmas. After tearing off the wrapping paper, I was nonplussed with its cover. Peace signs and missing-cat posters? This didn’t look like “Night Shift” or “The Tommyknockers.” The back cover’s synopsis did little to reassure me that I would like it. It was some kind of “coming-of-age” drama, and promised nothing of the monsters and mayhem that I’d always loved in Stephen King’s work. I got the sense that this was a gift book that I would read out of politeness. If memory serves, I indeed only sat down with it years later.
I just recommended it to a college friend this weekend. (And now I am tempted to go grab it again, even though I have been itching for so very long to revisit that quick, short little tale entitled “IT.”) I tried to explain to my alum that “Hearts In Atlantis” was a “more mainstream” King novel that could be enjoyed by anyone. She asked if there were “monsters,” and I told her, “Well, yeah, but they’re almost always mostly off-screen.” (I have a habit of describing books as though they are movies.)
And I do think that’s a good way to describe it. This is a great introduction to King for a mainstream reader. The horror elements are minimal. The fantasy elements are used as a plot device, but quite sparingly. Yes, the “Low Men” from whom one character hides are fantasy characters from Stephen King’s sprawling and expansive “Dark Tower” multiverse. But, since they are portrayed so mysteriously, they can be just as easily read as sinister government agents — and this would fit right in with the 1960’s paranoia that this period novel often establishes as part of its setting.
If you do happen to love “The Dark Tower,” however, the characters of Ted Brautigan and Bobby Garfield will be familiar to you. And there is even a single, fleeting reference to a certain frightening provocateur for the violence and dissent in 1960’s America. We only hear him spoken of once. His initials are “R.F.,” although he is known to employ pseudonyms. The reference to him makes perfect sense in the context of the story, and spells great sadness for another character we’ve come to like.
But, again — this is definitely a more mainstream novel, maybe more in the spirit of a dark drama like “Dolores Claiborne” (which I have not read). Psychic powers and shadowy pursuers take a backseat to stories about people. There isn’t just one “coming-of-age story.” There are many, as we see key characters faced with trials and crossroads at different points during their often tragic lives, preceding, during and following a difficult and confusing time in American history. (I keep calling it a “novel,” even though it’s actually several novellas and three long stories.) Since it’s the same characters in the same universe, I like to think of it as a single overall novel. The quite-good film adaptation in 2001, starring Anthony Hopkins, actually covers only one novella within the book, “Low Men In Yellow Coats.” The eponymous “Hearts in Atlantis” novella is actually a separate tale — one that I enjoyed even more. This book is a tour de force in showing the points of view for multiple characters.
I was going to state that this is the most moving King tale I’ve ever read. I hesitate now … I know that a lot of fans point to “The Stand” for such a distinction. (I personally don’t agree, even though that book is my favorite of all time.) And certain entries in “The Dark Tower” series are very moving too. We’ve got Jake’s introduction and fate in “The Gunslinger:”
“He is too young to have learned to hate himself yet, but that seed is already there; given time, it will grow, and bear bitter fruit.”
“Go then. There are other worlds than these.”
We also have Roland of Gilead’s tearful embrace with his father in “Wizard and Glass,” and Steven Deschain’s reveal: “I have known for five years.”
Still, “Hearts In Atlantis” is a contender. Parts of it are heartwarming; parts are unflinchingly sad. It is alternately heartrending and sweet. I think that this is Stephen King’s most intimate treatment of his characters, with the possible exception of “The Body” (which film fans know as “Stand By Me”). (And bear in mind, we’re talking about a master of characterization and point-of-view.) I read “The Body” (part of the collection, “Different Seasons”) when I was a young teen, and that’s so long ago that I cannot adequately compare them. At any rate, we are a long, long way from straight genre-stuff like “The Boogeyman” and “The Raft.”
I found “Hearts In Atlantis” moving, to say the least. I hate to invoke the somewhat tired and trite-sounding standby, “I felt as though this book was written especially for me.” But I do feel that way, and I am not just thinking of one character or one part. I identified closely with the stages of life and the crises depicted for several characters. And I can’t even elaborate on why, because such information would be too personal for a public forum. (Okay, here’s one exception — if anyone reading this lived in Mary Washington College’s Bushnell Hall in 1990 and 1991, there indeed were a slew of guys who played “Hearts” incessantly!!) This book, which I read in my late 20’s, actually changed the way I looked at … hell, BOOKS.
I’m sorry to gush like a fanboy here yet again … I promise to return to form tomorrow by panning low-budget horror movies. In the meantime, goodnight, friends. And do stay ahead of the Low Men.