The Short Version: As a young boy, Jamie Morton befriends the new town priest, Charlie Jacobs. After a terrible accident, Jacobs leaves the town – but not before exposing Jamie to his secret obsession: electricity. Several times over the ensuing half-century, Morton and Jacobs cross paths on the road to a harrowing showdown that may well rip open the very fabric of our world.
The Review: I think my affection for and adoration of Stephen King is probably pretty well-known at this point. I’ve made the claim and would stick to it that he’s the most important American novelist working today, a novelist who will stand up alongside other American greats like Melville and Hawthorne as well as greats of any century, like Dickens or Austen. He is, perhaps more accurately, the most accurate representation of America of any novelist working today – an heir to the Bradburyian magic of this country, an idealized (if spooky) version of the world we live in.
And since college, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of an irregular tradition: reading the latest tome from Uncle Stevie over the course of the Thanksgiving holiday. Doesn’t always work out, doesn’t always match up – but I like it, conceptually, when it does. Feels appropriate, somehow.
This latest King tome sees him working with well-worn tools, ones so comfortable that you almost forget that you’ve probably seen them all before: small-town Maine, lost faith, nostalgia for youth, rock ‘n’ roll, an addict, a mounting unease as the page count gets higher… there is nothing here that will necessarily surprise a King reader, especially if you’ve tuned in for his post-accident work (for some reason, I do delineate in my mind – although you could just as easily say his post-millenium work). But more than perhaps ever before, King is tipping his hat to those who’ve come before. There are echoes of Lovecraft and his cabal (Derleth, etc), Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Jackson – even the aforementioned Hawthorne (I found myself thinking of “The Minister’s Black Veil” in particular) – and King gives them his thanks. I think it’s most noticeable in the structure of the piece: there is something you might call ‘classical’ about the way this story builds, even as King opens the novel by rooting it firmly in the more-modern cinematic tradition (with the discussion of the “fifth business”, a new term for me and one I enjoyed immensely) of storytelling.
And Jamie Morton is one of those characters who seems to come ready-made from the King factory of protagonists. He’s a good guy, but flawed in various ways – and that humanity, that kindness with which King treats his ordinary flawed ‘hero’, is perhaps why I enjoy King’s work the most at this time of year. Jamie is a good boy, a good son. Smart, but doesn’t break the bank; gentle and loving but only human. When we pick up with him some years down the road from the opening third of the novel (which primarily involves him from the ages of 6 to 18 or so) and he’s addicted to heroin… we do not look down on him. The reasons for how it happened make a certain kind of sense, in a fate kind of way, and while we might not make those decisions ourselves, it becomes difficult to say “oh, no, this man is bad.” He’s a victim of one thing or another, just like any of us might be, in various ways.
However, it’s Charlie Jacobs, the villain of the piece if you had to pick one, whose depiction matters more – because it isn’t as strong, frankly, as the reader wants it to be. In the early scenes, we do see the beginnings of a cracking King villain: a good man turned to darkness because of tragedy. A sort of flipside to Jamie’s coin, in some ways. But as Jamie and Charlie cross paths over the ensuing decades, we are left wanting a little bit. Jacobs ends up being more of a dottering eccentric, doggedly pursuing his crazy goal, than an out-and-out manifestation of evil.
Although I suppose you could say that it doesn’t take purpose to be evil – negligence or myopia can bring it around just as easily. Jacobs does a whole lot of good with his ‘secret electricity’ but some things aren’t meant to be messed with – a profoundly religious sort of statement for King, actually. The idea that stepping beyond the pale, attempting to lift the veil on the engine that powers the world, can lead to destruction is a decidedly God-fearing sort of opinion – although perhaps it ought to be ‘god’ and not ‘God’, as who’s to say just who or what we’ll find over there. And King’s grappling with religion in this novel, from Jacobs’ “Terrible Sermon” after the accident straight through to the end of the novel, is a quiet hum in the background, like that of an amp being turned on (to use a description of sound that King cannot get enough of in this novel). He doesn’t do any moralizing or proselytizing, not really – but up til the climax of the story, there are indeed quite a lot of questions being raised about the nature of faith in the modern era.
Speaking of the modern era, it’s worth noting one other thing in this novel: King’s love of music. Jamie Morton sounds like an alt-universe version of King himself sometimes and King seems to know it, with his grinning cover photo featuring a guitar slung over his shoulder. Jamie is a passable rhythm guitarist and the joy that comes from playing music – as King does in the Rock Bottom Remainders – even when you aren’t great at it. Hell, you take a look at the songs that Jamie covers and it matches up pretty well with the Wikipedia list of RBR’s repertoire. King gives a full-throated rebel yell of joy and you realize that that’s what makes his work so damn good: he genuinely enjoys doing it. Other writers may be technically more adept, but they lack feeling – and other writers might bring more feeling but they can’t get your hips moving in the way King can. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying what you do and encouraging others to enjoy it too; that’s the secret to rock music, really – and if King is the rock music of fiction, well, I don’t mind turning it up and blasting down the highway into the sunset every time it comes on my radio.
Rating: 4 out of 5. As crackling (wink wink) as the finale was, it was honestly a little bit of a letdown. Jacobs just never develops as far as Jamie does, the early Highsmith/Hitchcock menace of his character never getting out of second gear, and it leaves the reader with an imbalance when things must finally come to a head. But the ride leading up to that is terrific: creepy, curious, classic King. You can pick apart various pieces of this (or any other) King novel but to do so is to miss the point. I’m sitting in pajamas in the living room of my parents’ house by the fireplace with my dogs, Revival closed on the table next to me – and that’s what King’s novels are for me. I can think of no better goal for a novelist than that: delivering pleasure unto their readers. And I’ll be there on opening day for the next one, Uncle Stevie. May there be many, many more to come.