Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Those Days Were Also Old Days: "The Tommyknockers" Revisited, Part 1

"She began to giggle and he kissed her soundly and later took her to bed and they slept together like spoons.  He remembered waking up once, listening to the wind, thinking of all the dark and rushing cold outside and all the warmth of this bed, filled with their peaceful heat under two quilts, and wishing it could be like this forever -- only nothing ever was.  He had been raised to believe God was love, but you had to wonder how loving a God could be when He made men and women smart enough to land on the moon but stupid enough to have to learn there was no such thing as forever over and over again."  (The Tommyknockers, p. 52-3)
The Tommyknockers was by no means one of my favorite Stephen King novels when I first read it.  I don't want to get too deep into writing a history of my King fandom right now -- that's a subject for another post -- but it's worth mentioning that that fandom began with The Stand in 1990 and rapidly progressed to my scouring used book stores and reading every book by King that I could get my hands on.  I tore through his entire bibliography in something like a year, and it was with Four Past Midnight that I began buying the books as soon as they were published.  In devouring that whole canon, I loved almost all of the books that I read.  The only real exceptions: I didn't like Cujo, Thinner, or The Tommyknockers.

When I reread Cujo a couple of years ago, I found it to be a terrific novel; and when I reread Thinner not long after that, I enjoyed it reasonably well, too (I still don't rank it very high on my personal list of King favorites, but I wouldn't say I dislike it).  So, with those reversed opinions in mind, I was curious to see what I would feel about The Tommyknockers when I revisited it.

The verdict...?

I kinda loved it.  It's a shaggy beast, one that could have used some prudent editing in a few places, but the central ideas are terrific.  The novel starts well and finishes well, and if some of what comes between is a little shaky, that's okay by me.

So, why did Bryant '91 dislike this novel?  Not being of Gallifreyan origin, I don't know that I have the proper means at my disposal to answer that question definitively.  However, I can take a guess.  The three novels listed above share one thing in common: they are extremely downbeat, and border at times on being out-and-out depressing.  Their themes are very adult ones (this is also true of Pet Sematary, which I recall liking, but being very disturbed by), and I suspect that Bryant '91 -- who turned all of seventeen that year -- was just not capable of processing a lot of what they had to offer.

The degree to which I've grown up is debatable, but Bryant '11 is a different fellow in at least some regards, and as such, The Tommyknockers had some resonance that really struck home for me when I reread it.  I've got several different essays I'd like to write to try and get at some of that, and let's let the following photo -- thanks, Google! -- serve as a clue as to what the first of those is going to be about:







As much as it is about anything else, I'd say that The Tommyknockers is a story about failed love.  Not doomed love, or even about broken hearts (though that's clearly what the photo, misleadingly, suggests).  Instead, The Tommyknockers is about something that Bryant '11 finds maybe even more disheartening: love that could have been, and even sort of was, but that never quite held together the way it ought to have done.

Yes, that's right, The Tommyknockers is (at least partially) a love story.  And yes, that's right, I'm going to discuss it as such.  For those of you who find yourselves feeling discomfited by that, I will try and toss in a few swear words here and there to liven things up, ya sonsabitches, ya.  I'll do my best not to go all touchy-fuckin'-feely on you, but I'm not going to make any promises, because the fact of the matter is, I was quite moved by the story of Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener.

There had been occasional romantic subplots in King's work up to this point in his career (1987), but I don't think anybody would have made the claim that writing romantic couples was one of his stronger talents.  His budding romances (Ben/Susan in 'Salem's Lot; Stu/Fran in The Stand; Dennis/Leigh in Christine; Eddie/Odetta in The Drawing of the Three) up to that point in time mostly feel like exactly what they are: plot contrivances.

He was better at portraying troubled marriages (Jack/Wendy in The Shining; Donna/Vic in Cujo; Louis/Rachel in Pet Sematary), but the only romantic relationship in pre-Tommyknockers King that I really buy into is the one between Johnny and Sarah in The Dead Zone.  That one, too, is a doomed romance; maybe it shouldn't be surprising that for an author best-known as a writer of horrors, it's only the tragic love stories which end up seeming convincing.

The relationship between Bobbi and Gard is a major part of The Tommyknockers, and as such, King wastes no time in getting to it, having this to say just a few paragraphs into the first chapter, while Bobbi is out in the woods, about to stumble across an alien spaceship buried in the earth:
"Peter had been given to her by Jim Gardener in 1976.  Anderson had left college the year before with her degree only two months away to move onto her uncle's place in Haven.  She hadn't realized how lonely she'd been until Gard brought the dog.  He'd been a pup then, and Anderson sometimes found it difficult to believe he was now old -- eighty-four in dog's years.  It was a way of measuring her own age.  Nineteen-seventy-six had receded.  Yes indeed.  When you were twenty-five, you could still indulge in the luxury of believing that, in your case, at least, growing up was a clerical error which would eventually be rectified.  When you woke up one day and discovered your dog was eighty-four and you yourself were thirty-seven, that was a view that had to be reexamined."  (p. 11)
A few pages later, King writes, "It was not only depressing to realize how fast time got by; it was depressing to think of how often she thought about that lately" (p. 19).  And, shortly after Bobbi tries phoning Gard:
"She opened the book, paging past the title, musing for a moment over the copyright date, 1974, then pausing at the dedication page.  It was as stark as the woodcut.  This book is for James Gardener.  The man she had been trying to call.  The second of the only three men she had ever had sex with, and the only one who had ever been able to bring her to orgasm.  Not that she attached any special importance to that.  Or not much, anyway.  Or so she thought.  Or thought she thought.  Or something.  And it didn't matter anyway: those days were also old days."  (p. 19)
It's worth considering how all this functions.  For first-time readers (assuming they have no knowledge of the book), Bobbi is the first character introduced in the novel, and we have no real choice but to assume that she will be the main protagonist.  We have no way of knowing that Gardener will turn out to be the person who fills that role; here, in the opening chapter, Gardener is only a background figure.  King mentions him frequently enough that we understand that he is/was a very important figure in Bobbi's life, but we also understand that he was not as important a figure as he ought to have been, or as important as Bobbi might have wanted him to be.  Bobbi doesn't think of it in those terms for herself; we don't get any passages in which she contemplates her long-lost-love, or anything so melodramatic as that.  If anything, the implication seems to be that Bobbi wouldn't even think of it in those terms.

Instead, in Bobbi Anderson, we meet a character for whom the notion of lasting romantic love in her own life is simply not something that exists.  "Those days were also old days," King writes, and the "also" is an importantly-placed word in that sentence: the "also" places Bobbi's romantic attachment to Gardener on the same plane of existence as the days in which Pete was a puppy and she herself was twenty-five.

In other words, it is gone, beyond all hope of recapture.  We will discover, as the novel progresses, that Bobbi and Gardener are still friends, and that they still see each other from time to time; often enough, at least, that Gardener thinks of Bobbi as his only remaining friend (not a former friend of days gone by, but an active one).  Gardener is divorced, and has been for some time, so once we learn that, it begs the question: why were these two unable to get together?  It's a question King never answers; he hints at it (or, at least, provides enough character detail that we can make our own educated guesses), but he never actually answers it.  Some might see that as a plot deficiency, but it works quite well for me, because the likelihood is that Bobbi and Gard themselves probably never figured out why it couldn't quite work between them.  Maybe it doesn't work for all readers, I dunno; but for me, this makes the relationship between Bobbi and Gard feel quite realistic, and very, very sad.

As I think about the two of them, the image that comes to mind is of a disc someone has put in a car cd player: the laser is skimming along the underside of the disc, trying to read it, but there are just too many scratches, and all that happens as a result is silence; and yet, on the car keeps going, silence or no silence, bound to its destination. 

Sometimes, discs just won't play; and other times, people just won't love.  That's how it is.  I believe that I promised you some choice swear words as a compensation for that sort of observation, so here goes: asshole bastard wank.  Anyways...

For Bobbi, what this all seems to have done is to have caused her to resign herself to a life of relative solitude, albeit solitude that comes with a certain amount of self-awareness (Bobbi "was solitary by nature, but not monastic ... and sometimes simple human contact had a way of fulfilling her when she didn't even know she needed to be fulfilled" [p. 24]).  We also learn in these early chapters that Bobbi lives in the (seemingly well-named) Haven as a means of not having to live near her sister Anne:
"[S]he felt firmly in control of herself, and sure of one thing: she was saner in Haven than she had been in Cleaves Mills, and much saner than she had been in Utica.  A few more years in Utica, a few more years around Sissy, and she would have been as mad as a hatter."  (p. 32)
To escape her overbearing shrew of a sister, Bobbi seemingly dropped out of college and retreated the first chance she got, apparently seizing on the opportunity afforded to her by her Uncle Frank's death.  This seems to have saved Bobbi's sanity (to a sufficient extent that she was able to become a relatively successful novelist), but it hasn't been all positive: the people of Haven, in small-town New England fashion, have failed to truly accept her.  Bobbi's home is "still, after thirteen years, mostly referred to by the townspeople as the old Garrick place" (p. 12).  Bobbi, then, is not only a woman without the love that potentially could have been so meaningful; she is also a woman without a true community ... but also, more happily, a woman who has taken control of her own life rather than bow to the fate her family situation might have seemed to hold for her.  (The notion of fate will pop up again later in the novel more explicitly, and this is part of the means by which we can assess the changes Bobbi undergoes.)

We spend about forty pages with Bobbi right at the beginning of the novel, and during those pages, I found myself quite attached to her.  She is a strong character, one who is invested with a deep sense of melancholy (her best connection to Gardener is an elderly dog who is mostly blind -- as depressing a symbol for lost love as any I can currently think of), yes; but despite that, she stands on her own quite admirably.  We won't see her again once those forty or so pages have ended, not really; but the time we spend with her is absolutely crucial to the way the rest of the novel plays out.

From here, the novel transitions to about fifty pages' worth of Jim Gardener, who is on a poetry tour and who is about to fall off the wagon in a big way.  That's where we'll pick up in my next post, which will focus on Gard and his role in the novel.

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