I finished reading this marvelous book over this dreary sunshiny weekend. And I am totally surprised by how much I loved it.
This marvelous book, Hearts in Atlantis, is a book by Stephen King, whom I have always considered a dreary sunshiny popular writing hack. I have learned by it, how wrong I have been all along about this author. He is now established in my mind as a serious literary giant (as opposed to a comic literary giant like Kurt Vonnegut or Terry Pratchett). He deals with the emotions of fear, loss, angst, and regret, and so falls too easily into the horror writer category. I misjudged him for so many years because I read Carrie, his first success, and Firestarter… well, I tried to read Firestarter and only got 40 pages in when it was due back at the library… and… I mean, I never fail to finish a book I have chosen to read. And then I did. But both of those books showed me a writer who was trying too hard, following some road map of novel writing borrowed from some other writer he admired. And it all becomes formulaic and trite, sometimes even boring. He is mimicking someone else’s voice. I filed him in the “authors who are hack writers” drawer next to R.L. Stine.
But this book proved me totally wrong. I had to take King out and put him in a different drawer. It starts out as a typical Stephen King monster story with a first section with a young boy as the protagonist and introducing us to the monstrous “low men in yellow coats”. But it is a total trick to draw us in. And it is even a very good monster story. Like H.P. Lovecraft he has learned the lesson that a good monster story is not about the monster. And showing us the monster directly is something that should only be done very briefly, at just the right moment in the plot. Like the works of David Mitchell, this section connects you to threads from King’s other books, especially the Dark Tower series, which I must now read in the very near future. Stephen King has learned through practice to write like a master.
But the theme doesn’t really start to score ultimate literature points until he tricks us along into part two. The hearts in the title is actually the card game. It is a card game that takes over the lives of college boys in a dormitory in the 1960’s. They play it for money and it takes over their lives to the point that they flunk out of school at a time when that means they will be drafted and sent to Vietnam. And the characters that are immune to the pull of the hearts game (also a metaphor for the second protagonist’s love life) fall victim to the urge to take on the government and protest the war. Hence the “sinking of Atlantis” metaphor means the loss of innocence, and the devastation that comes from making choices when you are young that will haunt you forever.
The post-war section of the book is filled with hubris, regret, lost love and stoic determination that is barely rewarded for only two characters in the entire plot. I won’t of course, say anything that is a plot spoiler. This is a horror story, and it is not my place to reveal the truth about the monster. I can only tell you that this story is a devastating read for those of us old enough to remember. And it is a fine work of dreary sunshiny fiction that frightens us with its truthfulness.