Hearts in Atlantis

by Stephen King

Published by Scribner

528 Pages, 1999


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A New King

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley

 

It's time we take Stephen King seriously as a man of letters. It's time that we read Stephen King and say to ourselves, "Wait a minute! This guy is a damn good writer!" He is the author of over 30 books, all of which are bestsellers. We read him because he scares us senseless. We read him because he can make the little hairs on the back of our neck stand up. We read him because he probes into the heart of darkness with sharpness and clarity. Now, with Hearts in Atlantis, a new kind of King book, we will read him because he's a fine storyteller and a fine craftsman.

As King himself says, "Then came Hearts in Atlantis, and it unlocked something in me that has been waiting patiently to find expression for thirty years or more. I was a child of the sixties, a child of Vietnam as well, and have all through my career wished I could write about those times and those events, from the Fish Cheer to the fall of Saigon to the passing of bell-bottom pants and disco funk... I felt that if I tried, I would make a miserable hash of it." Well, Mr. King, you haven't written hash, you've written the best book of your career.

Hearts in Atlantis is new fiction. Not a novel, really, more of a connected series of stories, some long, others short. It begins with "Low Men In Yellow Coats" where Bobby Garfield is in Harwich, Connecticut in 1960 and ends with "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," which has Bobby back in Harwich some forty years later. The result is a segmented novel that is King's richest work yet.

In Part One, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," 11-year-old Bobby discovers a world of malice within the confines of his own neighborhood. He also discovers that adults are sometimes not rescuers, but at the heart of terror. The first section, a novel in its own right, is classic King, with tension, suspense, and characters that are as real as the boy next door.

In the title story, a bunch of college kids get hopelessly hooked on a card game and soon discover the possibility of protest. King writes:

'How much trouble are you in, Peter?' she asked.

I thought of about a hundred different answers, then settled for the truth. 'I don't really know.'

'Is it any one thing in particular?'

... Yeah, Mom, the third-floor lounge is the problem, cards are the problem -- just a few hands is what I tell myself every time, and when I look up at the clock it's quarter of midnight and I'm too tired to study. Hell, too wired to study. Other than play Hearts, all I've really managed to do this fall is lose my virginity.

If I could have said at least the first part of that, I think it would have been like guessing Rumplestiltskin's name and then speaking it out loud. But I didn't say any of it.

This story is the strongest of the collection. It is reminiscent of the writing of J.D. Salinger where the plot is not the most important feature of the story, the characters are. King develops these characters so well, they become living, breathing people, like your own friends in college.

In "Blind Willy" and "Why We're In Vietnam," two men who grew up with Billy in Connecticut try to fill the emptiness in their lives in post-Vietnam America. America feels hollow and haunted now because of its recent past. And finally, in "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," Bobby, 40 years after the first story, returns home to discover one final secret, a secret that may bring redemption and his heart's desire.

Stephen King has written his masterpiece. His future work will be now judged against Hearts in Atlantis. It is filled with the atmosphere of America in the 1960s. It is filled with characters the reader can believe in. It is filled with honesty, humor and sincerity as well as tension, suspense and -- most importantly of all -- heart. | October 1999

 

Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye.