Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Meat's Sweetest Closest to the Bone: A Review of "Mile 81"

What was, a month ago when I started writing this five-part series on King's 2011 short stories?

(closer to two, actually)

Jeez.  Way to drag shit out, Bryant...

Well, in any case, I'm back now with part three, which will be dedicated to the third short story King released in 2011, "Mile 81."  This was -- and still is, excepting a fine audio version read by Thomas Sadoski -- a Kindle exclusive, and while some called it a novella, I can only think of it as a short story.

And it's not one of my favorites, if I may be honest about things.

I wrote about the story once already, and in returning to it for a second -- and, ambitionally-speaking, lengthier -- review, I find that I really just don't have that much more to say.

I didn't like the story any more the second time than I did the first.  I still don't dislike it, exactly ... but there's nothing here that thrills me, or moves me, or scares me.  It's just kind of ... there.  I read it the first time and did this:

Then, when I read it a second time, I did this:

Different picture; same shrug.  (Sidebar: I was shocked at how far into Google Images I had to search before I could find a decent couple of images of "shrug."  Plus side: apparently, there is a female fashion called a shrug; so I guess we all learned something today.)

I think I figured out a bit more in terms of why, specifically, I was nonplussed by the story.  I could probably be my usual expansive self, and talk about how and why this story just doesn't crank my engine ... but to be honest, I just want to get past this one, and move on to finishing out the series with "The Little Green God of Agony" and "The Dune."  Because in the end, I find "Mile 81" to just be kinda ... unimportant.  Therefore, it seems like it would be sily for me to spend much time wrestling with it.

So, a few notes, and we'll bid adieu!

  • I don't like the tone King takes in describing the kids at the beginning.  He's written children quite effectively in the past (e.g., The Body and Hearts In Atlantis and It), and on those occasions, he was successful because he never pandered.  It might be that this was because he was writing children from roughly the same period as when he himself was a child, and so they were totally familiar to him.  Here, he's writing kids from nearly 50 years later, and to my ears, they don't sound particularly ... realistic.  Or maybe they simply don't feel like characters so much as they feel like stick-figures.  I'm not quite sure what the root cause is, but I do know that Pete and George and company fail to pull me in the way they ought to do.  And would kids in 2011 even know what "paratroops" are?
  • I like the cameo appearance by an issue of American Vampire.  (For you Dark Tower nerds, by the way, that's maybe a hint that this story takes place in the same reality as the other stories in which "Stephen King" exists as a real person.)
  • There are a few instances in which King writes a word the way Pete thinks of them (and would, therefore, spell them), such as this passage describing a makeshift dartboard made from a photo of Justin Bieber: "Justin's teeth had been blacked out, and someone had added a Notzi swat-sticker tattoo to one cheek."  Written on the dartboard: "BEEBER LINE."  Those mis-spellings are charming in their way, and help inject a sense of real adolescence into the tale of Pete's vodka-swilling, pussy-glimpsing sojourn into the abandoned rest area.  (Side-note: that line cannot be properly read aloud so as to convey the meaning of the misspellings.  So, for you folk who persist in thinking that you miss nothing by listening to the audiobook, here's a smallish piece of evidence to support my claims about how wrong, wrong, wrong you are.  That said, Thomas Sadoski does a terrific job narrating the audio version, and I enjoyed it way more listening to it than I did actually reading it...proving, I suppose, that reading instead of listening ain't always what it's cracked up to be!)
  • Rare is the short story -- or even the novella, really -- that focuses on multiple characters' points of view.  This story takes on entirely too many, and in that sense, it feels a bit like the idea for a novel that got rejected, and then fleshed back into something vaguely resembling short-story form.  First we get Pete Simmons; then Doug Clayton; then Julianne Vernon; then the various annoying members of the Lussier family; THEN, by god, Trooper Jimmy!  For a story that -- in terms of regular print -- probably won't run more than thirty pages or so, that's an awful lot of characters.  None of them really stick, either.
  • The star of the story, I suppose you'd say, is the monstrous shape-shifting car.  And, since it doesn't even move, it's just a bore, as far as I'm concerned.  In Christine, the car moved; in From a Buick 8, it was a Macguffin; here, it just sits there and waits for some dope to touch it.  That doesn't scare me at all.  However, we do get at least one vintage gross-out description: "Doug tried to pull back.  Blood flew, some against the muddy door, some splattering his slacks.  The drops that hit the door disappeared immediately, with a faint sucking sound: slorp.  For a moment he almost got away.  He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel's chicken wings.  Get it all before you put that down, his mother used to say, the meat's sweetest closest to the bone."  Yuck!
  • I mentioned in my previous review that the car reminded me of the malevolent oil slick in "The Raft," and I stand by that assertion.  I think they are members of the same species, and here is the passage that makes me think it: "A sheaf of her hair fell against the door and was sucked in.  The top of her head smacked against the car before she could tear free.  Suddenly the top of her head was burning as the thing ate into her scalp."  As you might recall, there is a character in "The Raft" who also gets done in by her hair.  I have to assume that King remembers that, and that he is paying homage to it here.  (That story is a classic, by the way; if you haven't read it, get yoself a copy of Skeleton Crew and check it off your list as soon as possible.)
  • Rachel and Blake are annoying as hell.  Rachel doesn't sound even vaguely like any six-year-old I ever met (which, I'll grant you, isn't very many).  The charge of making a child sound unrealistically older than his or her years has been leveled at King before: both Danny Torrance and Charlie McGee suffer from that writer's malady, too...although in both of those cases, you can -- quite persuasively, I think -- make the claim that their odd mental abilities have caused them to mature quicker than is natural for children of their age.  Rachel Lussier has no such mental leg-up, and therefore her characterization seems off to me.  As for Blake, he's annoying; I wish he'd gotten eaten by the car, frankly.  Yes, yes, I know; I am a terrible person.
  • There is a theme running through the story about Good Samaritanism.  It gets both Doug and Julianne killed, but when Pete shows the same tendency, despite his instincts, he survives whereas they perish.  To me, that makes the story feel off-balance thematically.
  • I like the mentions of Boardwalk Empire and Doctor Who.  I'm an easy mark; all you've got to do is mention something I like, and it's enough to capture me for a moment or two, because hey, I like those shows, too!
  • Do I buy the way Pete is able to dispatch the car using his magnifying glass to burn it?  Yeah, sure; why not?

I don't know that I've got much more than that to say, to be honest.

Next up will be a better tale, "The Little Green God of Agony."

1 comment:

  1. Update: the story is now in print (in "The Bazaar of Bad Dreams"), and runs 45 pages. So my estimate of 30 was quite badly off.

    The "American Vampire" mention got revised into a "Locke & Key" mention, by the way.