Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Ghost of Her in the Glass: A Review of "Stud City"

March.
     Chico stands at the window, arms crossed, elbows on the ledge that divides upper and lower panes, naked, looking out, breath fogging the glass.  A draft against his belly.  Bottom right pane is gone. Blocked by a piece of cardboard.
     "Chico."
     He doesn't turn.  She doesn't speak again.  He can see a ghost of her in the glass, sitting, blankets pulled up in apparent defiance of gravity.  Her eye makeup has smeared into deep hollows under her eyes.


Today's post/review is a bit of a cheat.  Or, at least, it feels to me as if it is a bit of a cheat; it's probably less so than it feels.

Allow me to explain.
  
This review of "Stud City" is the latest in an ongoing series of reviews that is examining the entirety of Stephen King's short-fiction output, the most recent of which was "The Reaper's Image," a 1969 story published in the magazine Startling Mystery Stories.  Following my own brief, the next review in the series would have to be a review of whatever story King published next.
  
Makes sense, right?  Problem is, there is some confusion as to what story actually came next: it was either "Stud City" or "The Float."
  
Never heard of "The Float"?  I'm not surprised.  It was the original version of the story "The Raft," which did not hit stands until a Gallery appearance in 1982.  It was later collected in Skeleton Crew, and King explained that "The Raft" was a rewritten version of an earlier tale, "The Float," which had been sold to the magazine Adam in late 1969.  This is where the story gets funky: King says that while he was paid for the story, he never received any contributors' copies, nor did he ever actually even see a copy of the magazine.  Seemingly, nobody else has, either, and at some point in time, King lost his only manuscript of the story.  So, for all intents and purposes, "The Float" no longer exists.
  
I briefly considered reviewing "The Raft" in this spot, but since the story was literally rewritten from top to bottom, I thought that pretending that "The Raft" was "The Float" would be hugely disingenuous and inaccurate.
 
So, "Stud City" it is.  Problem is, the only version of "Stud City" available to me is the version that was rewritten for inclusion in The Body.  Evidence indicates that this was a fairly substantial rewrite, too, so what I'll be reviewing tonight is, in a way, also a bit of a lie.  In this case, though, it's a lie that is at least consistent with the lies in which I've been engaging all along during this series of chronological short story reviews.  In most cases, I've been forced to review not the original stories themselves, but the revised versions that appeared in King collections.
  
In other words, following my own brief for this series has been fraught with peril from the beginning, so what does it matter if tonight's post is especially perilous?
  
Answer: it doesn't, except to the extent to which it does.  And we're going to ignore that, and simply proceed under the assumption that the Different Seasons/The Body version of "Stud City" is essentially the same as the 1969 version published in Ubris.  We all know that that is a lie, but by continuing to read this post, you're implicitly taking part in the lie.  Isn't that a nasty trick for me to play on you?
  
You'll live.
 
 
That, supposedly, is the Fall 1969 issue of Ubris, the University of Maine publication which saw the publication of both "Stud City" and King's poem "The Dark Man."  I stole the image from http://img560.imageshack.us/img560/9193/ubrisfall1969big.jpg, and I wish I could find someplace from which to steal, borrow, or affordably buy a copy of the magazine itself.  But hey, we can't have everything, can we?
 

"Stud City" isn't much of a story, to be honest.  I would not go so far as to call it bad, but it certainly seems to represent a time in his life during which King felt the need to become Literary, and while you can argue over whether or not he ever got to the point of actually being Literary, I don't think there is much argument to be made that he had made it by the time "Stud City" came out.
  
This is not to say that it is a terrible story, though.  It has a few virtues, here and there.
  
When I think of it, though, I mostly think of my response to it when I first read The Body in 1990.  I was not, at that time, a particularly evolved reader in terms of the variety of what I consumed.  Lots of Stephen King, lots of Robert McCammon, a bit of Clive Barker, a lot of Star Trek novels.  A bit of Ian Fleming here and there, a dash of Tolkien or Frank Herbert.
  
Zero "literature."  
  
Do not take this as a claim that none of the above is literature.  What a silly thing to claim.  No, sir; all I mean is that I did not read non-genre books.  You know, books about relationships and whatnot.  I was still several years away from getting into the books of Larry McMurtry, and I can't honestly even claim that non-genre movies had begun to make an impact on me yet, aside from maybe a few isolated titles like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun.
  
So "Stud City" threw me for a loop.  "What the hell is this?!?" I imagine myself exclaiming, probably mentally, but maybe right out loud.  Being a fairly -- how do I put this...? -- unsophisticated fellow in 1990, at age 16, I simply did not understand most of the sexuality of the story.  I understood that there was something there to be understood; the story did communicate with me, in that sense of things.  And given its context within The Body, I don't think the reaction I had was inappropriate or even unhelpful.
  
But we are not here to talk about The Body.  As far as we're concerned, for the moment, it doesn't even exist yet.
  
So, what is there to say about this story?  Let's run through my thoughts on the subject, and let's do so via bullet-point.  It's a lazy way to proceed, but I don't seem to have any urge to do better tonight.  So be it:
  • The main character, Chico, is not actually named "Chico."  His real name is Edward May, and he's just a white kid who lives in Maine whose friends call him "Chico" because of his affectations, which include slicked-back black hair and Cuban boots.  He's pure wannabe, and you imagine him imagining being a put-upon minority who has something real to rebel against.  His idea of who he is -- "Chico" -- is a cliche, and the way in which it is a cliche is itself a cliche.  But it is a genuine one; there is something to it.  King doesn't do a heck of a lot with the concept, so it ends up being relatively meaningless, but the concept itself is a solid one for a story.
  • There is a certain amount of fortuitous mirroring between Chico's pretensions, the pretensions of undergraduate writing students, the pretensions of high-school-age readers, and even (at the risk of continuing to break my own timeline rules) the reflections of the older Gordon LaChance on the pretensions of the younger Gordon LaChance in The Body.  It doesn't make the story any better, exactly; but it certainly gives the pretentious blogger a few extra things to yap about.
  • There are occasional moments of evocative description, such as the one excerpted at the top of this post.  That image of Jane is a strong one, but King's decision to have Chico see it via her "ghostly" reflection in the window makes it even stronger.  It also reinforces the idea, implied, if not quite stated outright, that Jane is essentially meaningless to Chico; like a ghost, she barely even exists.
  • The title is never explained, precisely, but appears to be a sort of inside joke that Chico has, in which any guy with a suitably bad-ass car can only have one destination: Stud City.  I assume that this is probably something he heard his brother say, but that might be reading too much into things.  Nah; I'm gonna keep thinking that, because it just feels right to me.
  • Every time Chico says or thinks "Johnny," I hear Matt Dillon saying "Let's do it for Johnny, man," in The Outsiders.  Somehow, I think Chico would be okay with that.
  • "You were cherry," Chico says to Jane, referring to her recently-expired virginity.  "Cherry" is also, of course, a car-related designation, referring to vintage/mint condition.  Of course, I'm no expert, but I'm guessing there is zero chance that the only reason anyone ever began referring to cars as "cherry" is because somebody thought to associate a "pure" and "untouched" car with a pure and untouched woman.  There is a running subtheme about cars -- which represent both escape and danger -- in "Stud City," and Chico's seemingly-calculated despoiling of Jane becomes another element of that subtheme thanks to this single sentence.  But both cars and women can be used by men to achieve escape of one type or another, so really, the relationship already existed.
  • "The muscles, the little muscles on the insides of her thighs . . . they're jumping, uncontrolled, and this suddenly excites him more than the taut cones of her breasts or the mild pink pearl of her cunt."  1990 Bryant is still pondering that...convinced that it is really important, somehow.
  • "Sometimes he thinks that the closet door will swing open and Johnny will be standing there, his body charred and twisted and blackened, his teeth yellow dentures poking out of wax that has partially melted and re-hardened..."  Even when he's trying to be Literary, Stephen King can't resist being Stephen King, I guess.  This is a good thing.
  • "They see one little boy in a yellow plastic raincoat walking up the sidewalk, carefully stepping in all the puddles."  Some folk will be strongly tempted to see this as an It reference.  You should resist that temptation.  "Stud City" is set in Gates Falls, a fictional Maine town that -- given its seeming proximity to Auburn and Lewiston -- is about a half a state away from the also-fictional town of Derry.  That ain't Georgie Denbrough, y'all; it's just some kid in a yellow rainjacket, of which there have been roughly 986 billion over the course of human history, fictional and otherwise.
  • Does it seem as if Bruce Springsteen ought to have written a song called "Stud City" for one his late-seventies albums?  For the purposes of closing that loop, I am now going to claim that it would have been something like this.  God damn, what a song; if she wants to see me, you can tell her that I'm easily found...  (I also considered this song, which will rock your nuts off, but it didn't have quite enough melancholy to fit "Stud City."  It's there, though, just not in as great a quantity as in the other one.)
  • The most successfully-written scene of the story is probably the bit in which Eddie gets into it with his father, who is working on a dinner consisting of "a couple-three red hotdogs on a plate."  Jesus God Almighty, how sad an image is that?  A plateful of cheap red hotdogs, slathered with mustard, sitting on a TV tray until such time as they can be dismembered and going a-slidin' down Sam's gullet.  The moment in which Sam angrily throws a half-eaten frank at Eddie is sad, and Eddie throwing it back just as angrily is even sadder; but Sam picking it up and finishing the job of eating it is sad on a whole different level.  This family has so little money for food that they have to finish eating a hot dog that has been used as a weapon.
  • The business with the step-mother, Virginia, does not entirely persuade me.  The idea is that Johnny had been having an affair with her, and that Chico somehow blames this for Johnny's death.  He died in a car accident at work, and was only working there as a means of trying to escape his shabby living conditions.  Chico blaming Virginia for this seems like a stretch, even in fictional terms.  It's a decent idea, I just don't think it gets developed enough to have any actual impact.
  • "Johnny could have had steady work at Gates Mills & Weaving, but only on the night shift."  This is the same mill that forms the setting of "Graveyard Shift," which was collected in Night Shift.  I suspect this allusion was added during the revision for The Body, but I can't prove it, alas.

Well, we petered out there with a reference to the original/revised issue, so why don't we wrap things up with a brief look at what I do know about the differences.  In this case, we turn to Rocky Wood's book Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished, which has the following to say on the subject: "When rewriting the story for The Body King made numerous changes.  For instance, in the short story Chico's older brother Johnny had joined the Marines but in the novella" [Wood is referring here to The Body] "he had been killed when a runaway car hit him while he was changing a tire at the Oxford Plains Speedway."  Wood continues, "In other changes the sexual encounter between Chico and his stepmother, Virginia, is deleted; and Chico's natural mother Cathy is no longer mentioned, nor is her death in childbirth.  Another character deleted from the novella is Duane Conant, a friend of Chico's who was killed when his Mustang hit a pole on Stackpole Road."  There also seems to have been a desire on Chico's part to join the Marines himself, but that was seemingly revised out when Johnny's own military history was removed.

*****

So, there you have it, folks.  That's what I know about "Stud City."  It sounds as if the original version of the story does have some significant differences, and I'd love to be able to read it at some point. 

For now, though, I think our work is done for the day.  As I wrote this, June 2nd has turned into June 3rd, which means that the new King novel, Mr. Mercedes, is out.  I don't think I can get it anywhere in Tuscaloosa at this time of the night, though; Walmart doesn't tend to put books out at midnight anymore.  So, I think it is instead time to hit the sack for the night; give it six or seven hours, and it'll be time for a Wally-world run, to be followed by a long day of reading.  Can I finish the novel in a single day?

Shee-it, man . . . you know I can . . .

So look for a non-spoilery review of that in the next couple of days, with a more spoilery one to follow at some point in the week or two thereafter.

2 comments:

  1. I barely remember this story from "The Body," sadly. Interesting write-up, though - I'm actually surprised none of these details are jogging my memory.

    Enjoy Mr. Mercedes Day! I will hopefully be joining you and other Constant Readers within a matter of days, having pre-ordered but declined the same-day delivery fee. So, whenever it gets to me, I guess.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not surprised you don't remember much about it. Neither did I until I reread it yesterday...and I'd reread "Different Seasons" only five years or so ago!

      The one thing I would have bet on was that it was set in New York City. Nope. Maine.

      Weird.

      Delete