Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Review of Owen King's "We're All In This Together"

A few years ago, I stumbled across an article that mentioned the publication of a new book: We're All In This Together, by Owen King.  Somewhere in my brain a bell went off, but I did not immediately get the math on two-and-two to equal four.

Owen King, the article explained helpfully, was the son of horror author Stephen King.  The math came together for me about half a second before I got to this line, though: I remembered Stephen King's poem "For Owen," and realized that the subject of that poem and the author of We're All In This Together must be one and the same.  The article, of course, confirmed this.

Naturally, this intrigued me mightily.  The article -- if I'm remembering it correctly (I have no notion of where, exactly, I read it) -- described the book as being more akin in tone to John Irving than to Stephen King, which was fine by me, seeing as how I'd read and thoroughly adored two Irving novels (The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meaney) in college.
The next step, obviously, was to buy the book, and that happened almost immediately.

You'd be totally forgiven for assuming, based on the context presented by the review thus far, that the purchasing of the book was immediately followed by the sitting-down-and-reading-of the book.  It's a natural assumption.

However, it would be incorrect.

Once I'd bought a copy, I immediately began to fret over it a little bit, trying to decide whether to actually read it.  What if it sucks? I asked myself.  What if sucks, and you end up thinking that Stephen King's son is a complete hack?  Wouldn't that make you feel like an asshole?  Do you WANT to feel like an asshole?  HUH?!?  That was an unattractive proposition, so I let the book sit there for a while, gathering dust.
Finally, though, I read it.  And guess what?

Stephen King's son ain't no fuckin' hack.

Let's deal with something right up front: Owen King does not write horror fiction.  His brother, Joe Hill, writes horror (and damn fine horror, too); Owen, however, does not, so if you're inclined to take on We're All In This Together in the hopes of reading something by Stephen King Junior, you're apt to be disappointed by the book.

Your loss, bub.

I had no such expectations going into the book, but I have zero doubts that King's prose would have won me over even if I had gone to the book expecting horror.  The stories contained in the book are, by turns, hilarious, off-putting, sad, weird, and completely normal.  They really did remind me of John Irving a bit, too; or, to be more precise, it reminded me of the memory of those Irving novels.

See, I've got a swiss-cheese memory, just like Scott Bakula on Quantum Leap, except nowhere near as severe, and also not as a result of an experiment that once went wrong.  So when I say We're All In This Together reminded me of John Irving, understand that I don't actually remember much about either The World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meaney.  In the place of actual memories, I have this indistinct blob of emotion, which informs me that those novels were quirky, funny, and sad.  My blob of emotional resonance also informs me that I loved both novels, but is otherwise not a great deal of help.  I am inclined to trust it, though; after all, it's a part of me.

And while we're on the subject of my swiss-cheese memory, let's get back to the subject of Owen King's first book.  By 2013, I'd forgotten a great deal of the specifics about what actually happened in the book.  I knew the title novella was political in nature, and also about a teenager's relationship with his mother and his grandfather; I remembered that of the remaining stories, one was about baseball, and one had something to do with fur trappers.  My blob informed me that I had loved the book, but elsewise?  Nada.

I've written about Joe Hill's work on several occasions for this blog, and I also reviewed (briefly, and not as in-depth as I ought to have done) an excellent Owen King short story, "The Idiot's Ghost," when it came out last year.  Since then, I've intended to work my way backward a bit and review We're All In This Together, but I recognized the need to re-read it first.

With King's debut novel, Double Feature, set to be released on March 19, I figured the time had come to pull the trigger and produce a review of his first book for this blog.  So last week, I settled down while some laundry was a-dryin', cracked the pages, and started in on my re-read.

And guess what?

It's even better than I remembered.

Not perfect; I've got a few criticisms.  On the whole, though, they're mild, and what I'll say about King now, after the re-read, is this: Double Feature can't get here quickly enough.

Enough setup: let's dive into the meat of this review, and discuss the stories that form We're All In This Together.

Al Gore, the man who should have been President

The first story in the book is the novella from which it draws its title.  "We're All In This Together" is the story of George, a fifteen-year-old boy who comes from a long line of liberals, one of whom -- his grandfather, Henry -- is nursing a massive amount of resentment over the fact that George W. Bush was awarded the Presidency in favor of Al Gore.  Henry feels that Gore was robbed, and the country, too; and seeing as how he spent three decades as the leader of a local union of ironworkers, and therefore has zero reluctance toward speaking his mind, he decides to erect a billboard on his front lawn.  It reads like this:

Albert Gore Jr. won the 2000 election by 537,179 votes, but lost the presidency by 1 vote.  DISGRACE.  The leader of the free world is now a man who went AWOL from his National Guard unit, a huckster of fraudulent securities, a white-knuckle alcoholic, and a gleeful executor of the mentally handicapped.  CRIMINAL.  Our nation is in the midst of a coup d'etat, perpetrated by a right-wing cadre that destroys the environment in the name of prosperity, hoards in the name of fairness, intimidates the voices of its critics in the name of patriotism, and wraps itself in the word of God.  FARCE.

Below that, there is a portrait of Gore, beneath which is a slogan: THE REAL PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

Before long, Henry finds that someone has vandalized his billboard.  One piece of graffiti reads "COMMUNIST SHITHEEL."  The most likely suspect is Steven Sugar, Henry's former paperboy, who got fired from his job for continually failing to include the Travel section of Henry's New York Times.  Henry concocts a plan: to wield a paintball gun, catch Sugar in the act, and paint the vandal's face from a sniper's perch, thereby striking a blow against all the wrongs that are currently besetting the country.

He enlists the aid of his grandson, George, in this insane plot, and that's the general setup.

This is, on the face of things, a very political story, and I suspect that that plot summary -- which is not particularly reflective of the novella overall (more on which momentarily) -- will have put a few readers off.  It'll have piqued the interest of others, of course, so in the grand scheme of things, it's probably a break-even.  King is approaching things from a decidedly liberal standpoint, but he's not averse to poking fun at the idea of liberalism, which as it goes further to the left becomes increasingly self-important and humorless.  Those viewpoints are represented by Henry; and Henry, at the end of the day, is a rather pathetic old man who has lost his wife.  She was in many ways his motivator, and a lifetime of progressive action on Henry's part seems to have culminated, now, in days spent eating peanuts, smoking weed, watching naked Swedes on television, and obsessing over Al Gore.
Henry McGlaughlin is not exactly the type of guy you want to end up being in your waning years.

The politics are important to the story, and my guess would be that they were what motivated the story, but they don't really form the heart of the story.  Not, at least, for me.  This is really all about the characters, and King has come up with a full roster of compelling people for us to spend time with.

The main character is George, the teenager, from whose point of view the story is told.  He's a confused kid, one whose mother had him when she was only nineteen, out of wedlock, and she has been going through a fairly steady parade of boyfriends in the intervening years.  Not to levels of trampdom, by any means; instead, she's had a series of serious boyfriends, several of whom were very good friends to George.  He still wonders why his mother didn't marry one (Dale) in particular, and is less than pleased with his mother's current beau: Dr. Vic (as he calls him), a goofy man who was George's grandmother's doctor during her illness before she passed.

His mother's relationship with Dr. Vic has gotten serious, and she's considering marrying him, despite his abominable taste in his music and his penchant for leaving god-awful love poems taped to the refrigerator.  Here's one of those (which King must have had a blast writing):

If She Were Tea (But She's Not Tea!)
By Victor Lipscomb
The beautiful fireworks blew up the sky
The way a beautiful woman can blow up a lonely guy.
If she were a box of tea
I'd have to keep her with me.
George Washington, see you later!
If loving her makes me a traitor,

I'd rather be British.

George's relationship with his mother is a bit on the strained side; he frequently refuses to communicate with her by any means other than by writing on a legal pad, and when he does speak to her, it's apt to be with the intention of hurting her feelings.  Part of the story's excellence is that it doesn't pull many punches in the depiction of this particular relationship.  King is unafraid of making George look like a complete dick once in a while, and he's just as unafraid of making it plain as day that Emma is utterly unsuited, in terms of her personality, to be with Dr. Vic.  She works in an abortion clinic, comes from union-leader parents, and has a great sense of humor, and -- in one of the novella's best scenes -- is not opposed to the idea of smuggling a bag of frozen dog feces and anchovies into the van of clinic protesters.  And yet she's settling for a man who unironically loves the music of Don Johnson!  In my mind, Dr. Vic is like Steve Carell wearing Bill Cosby sweaters and doing a Timothy Busfield impersonation.  How can someone like Emma possibly go for someone like Dr. Vic?

Through George's eyes, it is clear that this is a union that ought not to be.

And yet, George's eyes are not entirely trustworthy.  Part of the backbone of the novella involves the idea that all is not what it seems, and that theme emerges continually as the plot progresses.  I won't spoil anything in terms of where the story winds up, but suffice it to say that it ends on notes that are decidedly bittersweet, and with the emphasis more on the bitter than on the sweet, too.

Along the way, though, there are numerous incredibly sharp bits of character writing, many of them laugh-out-loud funny.  Yep, I said it: this novella is lol-worthy.  In fact, the book as a whole is totally chuckalicious: I laughed fit to bust on more than one occasion, earning the scorn of my cats, who just wanted to hang out in my lap for a while without all the ruckus, dadgum it.  But then along comes Owen King, making me guffaw unexpectedly, so there'd go a cat leaping out of my lap, startled.  Another of the four would come sidling up not long after and claim the vacated lap for theirs, their own, their precious, only to get the same shock a few pages later: me, laughing boisterously with no warning of any kind.  I had to employ the old wet-food-bribe gambit to get 'em back on my side later, but it worked.  It always works; cats try to hold a grudge, but they're surprisingly shitty at maintaining.

Nevertheless, here at the palatial headquarters of The Truth Inside The Lie, the staff definitely breaks down as being 4-1 in opposition to Owen King, with the sole positive opinion coming from the non-feline contingent.  Luckily, the felines do not set policy at The Truth Inside The Lie; they mainly just meow and sleep a lot, and poop, and, occasionally, go tearing from one room to another at full sprint for no apparent reason.  Dumb bastards still fall for the laser-pointer trick, too, so perhaps it's no surprise that they can't summon the culture needed for an enjoyment of Owen King's work.  I love 'em to death, but they wouldn't know a good short story from a Subway coupon.

Speaking of which, here are a few bits of King's prose that I found especially delightful:

  • Asleep in his lawn chair, Gil sat with his legs spread and a wet spot on the front of his pajamas.  In the sun, his bald head was the color of skim milk, so pallid it hinted at blue.  My grandfather had told me that the cancer was all through him, the way it had been with Nana toward the end.  To me, that phrase, "all through him," described an image of the disease as a growth of black vines, twined around Gil's bones, thickening and choking, getting tighter and tighter, until eventually something would snap and that would be it.
  • The yard did appear truly gruesome, as if someone had been knifed in the neck and then staggered around dramatically for hours, spouting from an endless reservoir of candy apple red arterial blood.  There was paint all over the stand of larch trees, the boles and the branches and the leaves; paint on the patch of wild rhubarb and on the back fence; paint on the grass and on the dirt; paint on the igloo-shaped birdhouse, as if a tiny Inuit had exploded; and even on the pool, where an errant paintball had dissolved into a small pink slick.
  • In the framed photograph above Papa's head, even Woody Guthrie seemed to have an idea of the direction things were heading.  Woody was seated on a guitar case, his clothes white with dust, his jaw spattered with a sickly growth of beard and a ragged straw hat perched way back on his crown.  On his face Woody wore the resigned grin of a man expecting to be punched and eager just to get it over with.
  • The notion that there was anything cruel about teaching my prospective stepfather's dogs to fetch their own feces, or that there was something more than a little demented about the trouble that I had gone to -- sneaking outside after dark to pick up these pieces of crap and then freezing them so that they could be thrown -- did occur to me at a few odd moments.  Luckily, I was usually able to slough off such attacks of conscience.
  • Meanwhile, my father discovered that he could maintain his fix by stealing cars, but one night in Lewiston he learned that it was a bad idea to pass out while idling in a stolen BMW in the drive-through line at Arby's.
  • I told myself that college was full of  beautiful girls, beutiful girls who had not shared their reproductive concerns with my mother.  At a place like Vassar College -- wherever that was, and whatever it was -- I bet they practically fell down out of the sky, like rain.  I bet at Vassar College you needed to wear an army helmet to deflect all the gorgeous, precipitating girls, and the birth control pills pinging down like hail.
  • The former vice-president's facial hair appeared soft, almost tentative, hinting at curls if it were allowed to grow long enough.  It was a beard that belonged to a much younger man, and it gave Al Gore's expression a morose quality, as if he were staring at the road for a ride that was late in coming, or more likely, never coming at all.
  • The previous autumn my freshman biology teacher, Mr. Capers, a spindly and excitable graduate student on loan from USM, had achieved some minor renown for raising a tarantula named Boris in the class aquarium.  We marveled with repulsion at the creature's hairy, scuttling hunger, the way it devoured dead bugs and ravaged the papery fly corpses.  Six classes worth of feeding, however, caused Boris to swell to the size of a fist, and he went belly-up over Christmas break.  For the edification of future biology students, Mr. Capers, instead of disposing with the spider's body, installed Boris in a block of Lucite to use as a paperweight.  But there must have been a breach in the paperweight's seal.  Moisture soon appeared on the surface of the Lucite and one day, Boris's legs broke off.  After that, the tarantula's body fell completely to pieces and rattled from one side to the other when you turned the paperweight over.  Mr. Capers, soured by a full year of dealing with adolescents, began to patrol the class while holding the Lucite block of loose tarantula parts, and, if he saw a kid who wasn't paying attention, he would shake it aggressively at them.
  • In the months after Nana died and Gil's cancer was diagnosed, I often joined the two old men while they smoked up and vegetated for marathon sessions of Bare Over There.  The three of us had been virtually hypnotized by astonishing wonders like the story of a pastry shop in a suburb of Zagreb where the topless waitresses served breast-shaped pastries, or the segment on the popular and controversial Latvian garage band who performed wearing nothing but Lincoln beards, and then fellated each other at the end of each show while simultaneously playing a (remarkably credible) cover of "Won't Get Fooled Again."  We had seen other episodes about naked Spanish farmers who were tanned to the color of photo negatives, a naked mayor in Finland who married other naked people, and a benevolent cult of do-gooding nudists who rode the train in Vaduz, offering to help old people carry heavy things.  All over the world it seemed, people were living and working unrestricted by garments.
  • He smiled, a wide, strong, yellow smile -- so strong and so hard a yellow that it looked like it could have slipped out of his mouth and fallen to the floor and not even chipped.
  • All of the houses here had been cranked out of the same mold, nondescript ramblers painted either white or sky blue, spaced out along a series of sweeping lanes that I supposed were meant to make the development seem less prefabricated and more like a village, but which instead gave the neighborhood a disorienting, House of Mirrors quality.  It had been a while, and I got lost.  Around every bend, I immediately recognized every house, only to realize a moment later that it was all slightly different -- or maybe it wasn't, and I'd just come around in a circle.  I remembered staying up late one night and watching a remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  It was only later that I started to puzzle over the ramifications of the story -- what happened when we were all gone, when we were all Pod people?  I mean, what came next?  I guessed maybe the Pod People would try to live like us, but not exactly know how, and they would end up building developments like this one where Dale lived, everything exactly the same, because that was what they thought it was like to be human.
  • Perhaps it goes without saying, but there are few instances in a young man's life when his mother is more awesome than when he watches her sneak to the minivan of anti-choice fanatics with a bag of frozen dogshit.
Good, good stuff.

I like this novella a lot, and come very close to loving it.  The characters are engaging, the prose consistently sharp and surprising, the politics never overly heavy-handed; it all comes to an end after about 130 pages, but I'd have been happy to keep reading for twice that length, and probably more.

And by the way, somebody needs to get this into the hands of David O. "Silver Linings Playbook / The Fighter / Spanking the Moneky / I Heart Huckabees / Three Kings" Russell, who would be my choice to make the movie version.

this book has nothing to do with the one I'm reviewing, FYI

The rest of the book is comprised of four short stories, the first of which, "Frozen Animals," is a frontier-set tale of a dentist who is shanghaied by a pair of fur trappers, who need him pull the teeth of the pregnant wife of one of the trappers.  They march him through the freezing cold, he pulls the teeth, he gets drunk and (possibly) hallucinates a disconcerting sexual encounter.  He wakes up the next morning while the trappers are tending to a pelt.

And that's the story.

If that sounds boring, relax: the story isn't what's important here.  That's not meant to impugn the story; instead, it's merely a way of suggesting that the story is a tool in service of what King is really interested in, namely, again, the characters.  Here, there are four: Pinet, the drunken dentist, whose marriage has (not without cause) fallen into shambles; Kosskoff, the hulking trapper whose wife is ailing in the dental department, and who is a taciturn type familiar to most anyone who's ever read or seen a Western; Funt, the smaller trapper, whose mouth runs constantly and whose energy stands in opposition to Kosskoff's silence, and yet complements it somehow; and the unnamed wife, an Indian woman who seems to merely accept her sometimes-painful lot in life, though not without glimmers of good cheer.

King's aim seems merely to have been to get these four characters to come alive for twenty pages or so, and for my money, he accomplished the task quite well.  Again, I'd have been happy to spend more time in the company of these ramshackle characters.

Although, on second thought, maybe "happy" isn't entirely the correct word.  One of the things the story does successfully is summon a sense of time and place, and if I've read the story correctly, I think King's aim was to remind us that the olden times kinda sucked.  It was painful, and it was uncomfortable, and it was smelly; the story serves as an act of anti-nostalgia.  This is important, I think; moreso because Pinet's most pressing problems seem to stem from the fact that he's nostalgic for the lost relationship with his wife, the loss of which seems entirely to have been his own fault.  If he were less nostalgic, perhaps he could keep himself from becoming a wreck of humanity, but that does indeed seem to be the direction he's heading.

[Side-note to self: how come the English language doesn't have an antonym for "nostalgia"?  That'd be a useful word.  I suggest ... yestalgia.  Actually, scratch that; I suggest nothing of the sort.  Bad suggestion, Bryant!  Bad!]

King, of course, never lived as a fur trapper during the frontier days, so it's entirely possible that he was just making shit up left and right as he wrote this story.  This is apt to be particularly true of the dental scenes, although it all reads as utterly convincing to this particular reader.  (In which case, I really rather hate to think of the research King may have done into frontier dentistry.  *shudder*)  The first time I read the book, I was rather impressed by how successfully King shifted from the very recent past (2001) to the considerably more distant past.  [Side-note I'm not sure when "Frozen Animals" takes place, but I'd peg it as late nineteenth century.  I've been describing this as a frontier tale, and I'm not actually sure that phrase applies.]
I wasn't much less impressed the second time, either.  King's skill at making us feel like we are in that cabin with Funt and Kosskoff is admirable; not being a writer of fiction, I'm not sure what sort of skills it requires to really pull off writing a story set during a time in which you never lived, but whatever those skills are, King seems to have them.  Speaking of which...

Image borrowed from:

Next up: "Wonders," my personal favorite story in the book.

"Wonders" is the tale of a minor-league baseball player named Eckstein, who plays for the Coney Island Wonders.  He's one of the team's MVPs, but during the time we spend with him, he's mostly in a slump, thanks to fretting over the baby he seems to have put in the belly of a girl who works at a nearby movie theatre.

As the story opens, we also meet the excellently named Cleatus "Woodpecker" Burnham, a Negro teammate who is being heckled on account of the fact that the story takes place well before Jackie Robinson broke down the doors to allow men of color to play baseball alongside crackers Whitey men of a paler complexion.  The reason Burnham is able to play at all?  Because of an entertainment exemption the Wonders have for "special attractions."  This is thanks, presumably, to their proximity to the sideshows that populated Coney Island during the thirties.  Burnham, then, is just another freak; except that nobody seems to be heckling the two-headed woman when she performs with some of the other freaks between innings.

My assumption, reading the story for the first time, was that it would be primarily about the struggles Burnham is facing, only told through Eckstein's eyes.  This assumption bore virtually no fruit; Burnham pops up several times in the story, and is an interesting character, but this is Eckstein's story, and quite thoroughly.  He is a vehicle through which we get a series of snapshots of the time and place King is writing about, and Burnham's story is just one of those snapshots; it's sad to consider that for a great many people in those days, a Negro baseball player really would have been looked upon with greater scorn than a sideshow freak.  But Burnham seems mostly okay with it; you suspect he's probably just glad for the paycheck, and I have no trouble accepting that that's how it would have been for most men in his position.

[Side-note: I could not help but be reminded of "The Unnatural," an episode of The X-Files that tells the tale of a "Negro" baseball player in the forties.  He turns out to be an alien, of course.  I don't recall it being an especially great episode.]

We also see several of the sideshow freaks through Eckstein's eyes.  There is a beautifully-written, and utterly harrowing, scene in which Eckstein and his girlfriend pay a visit to some of the freaks.  I've tried to avoid drawing comparisons between Owen and his father, and that's mostly because the younger King's work stands on its own just fine, thereby rendering comparison not only pointless but also -- given the difference in subject matter between something like "Frozen Animals" and something like, say, "Graveyard Shift" -- irrelevant.
There are moments, though, when Owen King serves up evidence that he is indeed Stephen King's son, and the scene at the freaks' home is especially notable in that regard.  And what I'll say about that is this: if Owen ever decides to venture into the horror field, look out, because the few little glimmers in this story show that lurking somewhere within, he's got the goods to do his papa proud in the field of creepiness.

There's no need for that to ever happen, though.  King has the goods to make his mark in some other genre, and I suspect that when that happens, it'll be in the realm of comic-drama.  His stuff is damned amusing, but there tends to be some bite lurking behind the laughs, which is, of course, the case with most good literary comedy.  (I typed that as though I'm some sort of expert on the subject; I am nothing even vaguely like an expert on the subject.  Still, it seems true, so let's run with it.)

Take, for example, the movie that Eckstein goes to see after a game one night: Black Mansion, a vampire flick about a couple of hobos who become ensnared by a coven of vampires in a small town they visit.  Over the course of three delightful paragraphs, King gives us the plot of the movie, which is ridiculous, but not so much so that it couldn't have served as the basis of an actual film from the era.

I'm tempted to transcribe the entire plot for your edification, but that seems like it might be giving too much away that is best left discovered on one's own.  I will, however, share a couple of my favorite details from Black Mansion:

First, the hobos' names: Gooch and McMasters.  Now, I'm not precisely sure how to explain why I find those two names to be so hilarious when shoved together like that, but rest assured, I do find them hilarious.  If there were any justice, somebody would make a movie out of "Wonders," and it would be a big hit, and then somebody would turn the scenes of Black Mansion into a full-length movie, kinda like what happened with the fake Machete trailer from Grindhouse.  Then, we could have an awesome Gooch and McMasters movie, and maybe somebody would then have the bright idea to do an animated spinoff on FX.

Second, the means by which Gooch and McMasters are lured into the vampires' nest: complicit townsfolk do so by promising them a baked bean supper.  It is both hilarious and sad that in the 1930s a perfectly valid plot point in a horror film could involve two grown men being lured to their deaths by the promise of baked beans.  When those two men are named Gooch and McMasters, it crosses the line from hilarity to some sort of divinity.  At least, it does for this blogger.

The entire section describing Black Mansion is great, and while some solid yuks are gleaned from King's lookit-that-silly-flick stance, he's also capable, mere moments later, of convincingly showing us Eckstein becoming unsettled by the movie the more he thinks about it.  There is a scene in which someone is surrounded by the vampires, who close in on their prey in a circle and descend for their meal, blotting out the victim with their malefic backs.  The first time King describes the scene, it seems, indeed, silly; the second time, as Eckstein becomes troubled by it, it seems less silly, more potent.  King, of course, realizes that while you can stand at a remove from trashy cinema of that sort, there is nevertheless a raw power to it that remains undiminished.  In these moments, too, King is the son of the man who wrote 'Salem's Lot and other such tales of dread.
By the end of the story, the image of those vampires surrounding their victim and closing in on him will be repeated, to surprising and troubling effect.  The way King uses this image ends the story on a somewhat ambiguous emotional note, and while I can imagine some people complaining that it doesn't work, to me it seems rather perfect; this is an era that probably should confuse us emotionally, so for me it totally works that the story encapsulates that conflict between romance and grime.

By the way, if "Frozen Animals" was an exercise in yestalgia anti-nostalgia, so, too, is "Wonders," to some degree.  The past here doesn't seem to be much more appealing than it does in "Frozen Wonders," although the movie-theatre elements add a certain gloss.  The sideshow freaks are engaging creations, but their existence seems grubby and awful and (in one case) actively tortuous.  All things considered, though, this seems like what it must have been like to be a minor league baseball player in 1930s Coney Island.  Is there truth to that?  
Who knows; but in King's hands, it feels true, sure enough.
Before I move to the next story, I can't resist transcribing a few good bits from "Wonders."  Here goes:

  • In the outfield, beneath the flare of the light stanchions, the Backwards Man tumbled from his tricycle.  He stood up, confused, and ran in the opposite direction, away from the finish line.  The freak handlers hurried to correct him, but it was difficult to get the attention of the Backwards Man; his cross-eyed peanut of a head was set on his neck looking over his spine.
  • In his letters to his mother Pelky always promised that he was keeping his shoulder in on the spitters and curves, and to let him know right away if that farmer Garrison from up the road was causing her anymore trouble, asking her out to the county fair again.  That old clodsplitter better mind his manners, Pelky had dictated once.  I will shoot his dog and that is just for starters.
  • "You're garbage today," said Wheelock.  "Nobody throw out Eckstein.  He's garbage but nobody throw him out.  You hear me?  No matter how damn much Eckstein looks like a damn piece of trash sitting in a dugout full of baseball players, nobody throw him out.  If I find that little son-of-a-bitch in my clubhouse trash can I just might not be accountable."
There's plenty more, much of it involving either Black Mansion or the carnival folk, but that's enough for this particular venue.

On to the next story!

"I'm tired of these..."

"Snakes" is the story of a teenager named Frank, who is visiting his father on one of his dad's custody weekends.  His father has a touch-football game to play, though, and some beers to drink, so he drops his kid off at the mall, armed with a whole twenty-dollar bill to keep himself amused.  Frank then meets a guy who is running a rather pathetic snake show, which consists of one taciturn boa constrictor named, charmingly, Julius Squeezer.

Not much to this story, plot-wise.  Again, the meat of the story comes in the form of wry character observations.  King summons what appears to be a solid grasp on what it's like to be a teenage dirtbag who hangs out in the mall on account of how nobody loves him enough to give him anything better to do.  Frank seems like a pretty decent kid, though.  I'm basing that largely on the fact that while he spends some time getting high in a rusted-out Impala, he spends most of his time inside the mall's bookstore, sitting there reading crime novels.

Frank is also seemingly a relatively discriminating reader:

The trouble with The Gold Stamp Murders and Checkfate was that neither was particularly believable.  The first book was about a gangland war.  In the second chapter, a hired gun backed over a private investigator with a garbage truck.  Then, after the garbage truck pulled away, the P.I. was able to crawl off with only a fractured leg.  Please, thought Frank.  It was common sense that after one pressing by a garbage truck, that was it, your ticket was punched.

Frank can, and does, think for himself.  I get the sense that he's going to turn out okay in the end.

"Snakes" doesn't tell us for sure one way or the other, though.  It's merely a snapshot.  It's also my least favorite story in the book, but don't think that I mean to say it's bad.  It isn't.  It's quite good.  But one of the stories had to be my least-favorite, and this is the one.

It's definitely not the next one...

Lana Wachowski

"My Second Wife" is...


Well, it's awesome, for one thing.  For a second thing, it's my second-favorite story in the book, behind (and not further than a hair behind) "Wonders."

For a third, it's freakin' hilarious.  And very, very sad, but in a cheerful way.

What I'm trying to say, I think, is that "My Second Wife" is difficult to describe, but utterly delightful.

It's the story of a teacher named Stanley, whose wife is cheating on his with a baker.  She's left him, and to try to help him cope, his brother Wayne takes him along on a drive to Florida, where Wayne is buying a car that once belonged to a serial killer.  He's buying it from the killer's wife, with whom he has struck up a semi-romantic relationship by visiting a chat room populated by the family members of serial killers.

There's a stop-over at the Appomattox Court House, the site of General Lee's surrender, and there's also a drunken encounter with an emu.  There's a woman who wears red jeans and who seems like just what Stanley needs to pull him out of his funk, too.

This is another of those stories that I could happily have gone on reading for pages and pages and pages more.  And yet, by the end of the story, I didn't feel cheated.  It all ends like it seems it ought to end.  It also seems like I ought to be more expansive in my analysis of the story, but I'd need to divulge a bit more about the plot than I'd currently care to do in order to make that happen.

In lieu of that, I'm going to restrict myself to saying that this is very good stuff indeed.

A few choice passages:

  • Zooming through Worcester in a downpour, I gazed out at the muddy hills and the needles of the churches.  On higher ground, a factory chimney jutted up, gushing pillows of white smoke.  I thought about cremation.  I thought about leaving a request in my will for Wayne to roll my ashes into a joint, and smoke me.  Would I become a part of Wayne?  Would I drift into the atmosphere and become pollution?  Would I become a piece of someone's cancer?  I had a lot of thoughts like these.  At rest stop urinals I felt an urge to push men for no reason, and whenever I saw a skinny woman I imagined what it would be like to kiss her.
  • My wife's upbringing had been strict, and religious.  For most of her formative years the only toy her parents permitted was a Bible; and the only way she could play with the Bible was to make book covers for it.  (My wife could knock out a perfect book cover in about thirty seconds; take a paper bag, snip-snip, six precise folds, and there you had it.)  To this day, the walls of her parents' home were decorated with these childhood book covers, lovingly framed and hung alongside family photos.  The book covers showed elaborately painted action scenes: Jesus smashing the moneychangers' table with a kung fu kick, and David taking a chainsaw to Goliath's spewing jugular, and "THE BIBLE" in bullet print above the pictures, like it was a Steve McQueen movie.  Each night, her parents contentedly ate dinner at their kitchen table, beneath a framed cover of Cain dismembering Abel with a machete.
  • I imagined by wife and Albert Michalkiewicz having sex atop the steel counters of his bakery kitchen.  I saw the flour caked to my wife's ass as she sprawled beneath him; the powder turning his chest hair white, making him old and repulsive and powerful, like Anthony Quinn, like Zorba the fucking Greek.  When they were done, I supposed they would feast -- gobbling pastries and pies with lusty abandon.  I pictured Albert Michalkiewicz squishing a cannoli on my wife's chest and smearing the cream filling all over.

And so forth.  This is the final story in the book, and it's a fine one to go out on.  It was, as far as I can tell, King's first published story, and it got his career started on a fine note, as far as I'm concerned.

Owen King's author photo from We're All In This Together

And there you have it.  That's my review of We're All In This Together.  Owen King is a fine writer, one who I'll be paying close attention to from this point forward.  His debut novel, Double Feature, hits shelves on March 19; rest assured that you'll be able to read a review of it here a few days later.  (King is doing a reading/signing in Oxford, Mississippi on March 22nd; I'm only a state away, and work permitting, I'll be making the drive over for that event.  If so, you'll be able to read all about that here, too.)

I'll be back before long with a trek back to the dawn of the professional career of Owen's poppa: a review of "The Glass Floor," Stephen King's first professionally-sold story, which was recently reprinted in Cemetery Dance magazine.  See you then, I hope!


  1. First, let me pay the highest compliment and say I'm now sort of interested in finding out more about O. King's WAIT.

    In fact, the writing kind of puts me in mind of Carl Hiassen crossed with Jack London, crossed with Ralph Ellison crossed with Salvidor Dali.

    That's makes for an interesting combination and I'm alos curious what may be seen from O. King next.

    Now I'm wondering about something else. I wasn't planning anything when I ran across this Fangoria link and saw some special edition photos.

    The funny thing was I was kind of able to piece together an idea of what may happen in "Sleep" before it's released (I say MAY, not WILL as this is in no way an informed judgment).

    Anyway the more I thought about it, the more I wanted outside opinion on this matter so I thought I'd link the Fango article which shows images from "Doctor Sleep" and hopefully gain an unbiased opinion on this

    Here's the link:

    Let me know what you think or what impressions these images leave you with in terms of the possible story. I have my own, but I'd like others opinions first.


    1. Hey, thanks, Chris! That IS a compliment! Owen King's novel "Double Feature" seems to be getting good advance word-of-mouth, so you might consider checking it out when it's released on March 19.

      As for the "Doctor Sleep" issue, I'm staying as far away from those images as possible. I saw someone writing about them elsewhere, and they said that they were indeed quite spoilery. I'd just as soon remain unspoiled until September.

      Without giving anything away, were your impressions positive or negative?

    2. Well, first off if my thanks for the quick reply seem more effusive than normal, it's just cause this whole damn thing has been bugging me ever since I saw it this morning.

      Anyway, my reactions? Um.....

      ............................................................................Well, believe it or not, it was a delayed reaction at first, then when it arrived I was put in mind of a vlog from that Nostalgia Critic Guy with the Glasses, only that was totally unrelated as he was reviewing Neverending Story 3 (don't ask).

      Anyway, I was able to piece together an idea (I don't how good, if at all) of what would happen based on the pics King's EW interview where he gives major spoiler about the ending away.

      Seeing as how you'd remain spoiler free, well then I guess I can wait to ask my question sometime in october, but even then it might be giving away one hell of a spoiler.

      I think the safest bet right now is to focus on a picture of who I believe is the main villain and how it relates to how they draw "energy" from kids.

      First the image of the villain (villainess, really).

      Unfortunately, highly unoriginal, and the way they drain, or at least consume "energy" from kids...All I'll say is it's hard to find a villain threatening or take seriously when their most diabolic act is comparable to someone crashed out on the couch with a can of ready whip.

      I hope that didn't give to much away, and I think I know how to confirm or dispel my idea of the story post release in the form of two words, maybe three. Yeah, I'm doubtful if I'll read it, incredibly enough respect is a factor in that decision, oh well. If my suspicions are correct, you'll know what they mean and can just say yea or nay.

      Till then.


    3. Hmm... interesting. Well, I remain hopeful. (And sadly, I know the spoiler you refer to in regards to that EW interview. I'm not too terribly bothered to know that one, though, since I know nothing about the context in which it happens.)

  2. I haven't read the novella yet, but I read each of the short stories this past week. I think my favorite of them was either "My Second Wife" or "Frozen Animals," but they were each fantastic.

    I never liked that episode of The X-Files, either. I think Duchovney directed that one. It was pretty amateurish, if memory serves. Nice idea, but...

    Not so with "Wonders." Man! Great stuff. "Snakes" is my least favorite of them, as well, but yeah, it's like an A- compared to the "A"s of the others, so it's a win-win.

    This collection is extremely agreeable. I look fwd to both the novella of the title and Double Features.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed 'em! You'll like the novella, too, although the politics might annoy you a bit.