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When Stephen King received a lifetime-achievement award from the National Book Awards in 2003, literary critic Harold Bloom threw a fit. "He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls," Bloom ranted. "That they could believe that there is any literary value or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testament to their own idiocy." Itís a safe bet Bloom didnít run to his local bookstore and pick up Kingís latest, The Colorado Kid. Too bad. A thoughtful tribute to the pulp classics of the 1940s and 50s, it is just the latest installment in an increasingly diverse and interesting body of work, including foreshadowings of high-school shootings and reality TV, written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. And more recently, King has made forays into non-fiction with essays like "Head Down," about coaching his sonís Little League baseball team, and an unassuming memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
The Colorado Kid is hard-boiled pulp on the surface, but dig down a few inches and itís a rumination on the art of storytelling. Set on fictional Moose-Lookit Island, Maine, the story opens with Vince Teague and Dave Bowie, editors of the Weekly Islander newspaper, and their young intern, Stephanie McCann, having lunch with Hanratty, a scoop-hunting reporter from the Boston Globe. The weathered old newspapermen stonewall Hanratty right off the island, and back at the office, in a sort of downeast initiation ceremony, they tell Stephanie the story of the unidentified Colorado man found dead on the islandís beach 25 years earlier.
Well-traveled ground so far, but King doesnít stick to the beaten path for long. The average crime novel would plunge into a flashback, recounting the crime and cracking the case in a breathless, as-if-you-were-there style, but this narrative never leaves the offices of the Weekly Islander. Vince and Dave do all the heavy lifting ó explaining the hunk of steak lodged in the dead manís gullet, and how he made it from Colorado to Maine. The two "old buzzards," as Stephanie calls them, also teach the aspiring journalist a lesson about stories: itís the ones without endings that ignite the imagination and are most worth telling.
The Colorado Kid owes a huge debt to pulp writers of the past. One of the hallmarks of crime fiction is the use of simple, stripped-down descriptions that belie a far more complex reality. Here King excels, describing a dead body as feeling "like wood under that white shirt," but balances with it a laconic pacing that mirrors the speed of island life. In one passage, Dave interrupts the story at a critical moment and asks if anyone wants a snack. Itís a way of taking a breath and appreciating the web being spun before the readerís eyes: "It turned out they all were, and story-time was suspended until Dave brought them back, along with a roll of paper towels. When each of them had a Labreeís squash muffin and a paper towel to catch the crumbs, Vince told Dave to take up the tale." In its way, The Colorado Kid is also a tribute to Yankee yarn spinners like Dave and Vince who populate Maine towns from Kittery to Caribou.
The book is weak in the character department. Vince and Dave, despite quoting Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay, are stock characters. Lantern-jawed, stingy and stubborn, they add some authenticity and provide comic relief to the murder mystery, but thereís a few too many "ayuh"s and the accent becomes a novelty. Theyíre stock characters that King makes us care about, though, and itís hard not to shiver when he foretells 90-year-old Vinceís death six months after the end of the story. There isnít much at all to Stephanie ó just the vague mention of journalism school and a nameless boyfriend, but thatís the point. Like the wedding guest in Coleridgeís The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, sheís there as a proxy for the reader, and her full presence isnít missed. In true pulp fashion, she is luridly painted on the bookís cover, wearing a small black dress and caressing a tape recorder.
In his Afterword, King predicts that readers will either love or hate The Colorado Kid. "Mystery is my subject here and I am aware that many readers will feel cheated, even angry by my failure to provide a solution to the one posed," he writes. Who knows? Maybe readers who salivated over the carnage at the end of Carrie will not enjoy a story that ends so softly. If so, theyíre in good company ó Harold Bloom probably wonít like this book either.
Brendan Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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