Stephen King's newest novel, Mr. Mercedes, is now two weeks old, sitting comfortably atop various bestseller lists (including the New York Times, still the standard-setter of such lists) and earning mostly positive notices from those who care about such things. I don't know what the reaction has been within the King community, because, frankly, I'm separated from most of those communities, and it's probably good riddance on both sides of that equation. It certainly is on this side. So whether the reception has been positive, middling, or negative, I do not know.
To be honest, it took me a while to figure out exactly what my own reaction had been. My first review was positive, but as I began the process of allowing the novel to settle in, I began to feel a bit less persuaded by it all in some ways, and even more impressed by it in other ways. It's a complicated reaction to a fairly uncomplicated book, which makes me wonder: is it an uncomplicated book?
Well, tonight, I'm going to explore a few of the elements that work for me, and a few that don't, and let's just see where we end up, eh?
Before we proceed, a warning: I will wear no spoiler gloves during this post. So if you've not read the novel yet, this is not written with you in mind.
PRO #1 -- THE BACKDROP
One element of the novel that struck me right away was the setting: the latter years of the previous decade. In and of itself, there is nothing extraordinary about that. Stephen King frequently writes from the vantage point of the present (or, in this case, the very recent past). However, when he does so, he frequently writes in a sort of "universal now" mode, by which I mean that the year in which the story is set is irrelevant. Does it matter when Doctor Sleep or Duma Key are set? Not really. Assuming that technological advances don't begin taking place at a preposterous rate of advancement, people sitting down to read those novels in the year 2054 are likely to still be able to read them from a "this is now" sort of mindset, the way we today mostly still do with Carrie or The Shining.
Mr. Mercedes is not written in that mode. When I say that it is set in 2009-2010, I mean that it is about 2009-2010, at least as much as it is about a retired detective going extra-legal to try to track down a serial killer. Consider the opening chapter, a masterful bit of writing in which we meet a few victims in their final hours. Assuming that you have at least a general idea of what Mr. Mercedes is about when you sit down to read it, then you probably get the idea pretty quickly during this chapter: these people are doomed.
Thing is, they seem as if doom might be in the cards for them even if that grey Mercedes is taken out of the equation. These poor folks are standing in line for admittance to a job fair, and not just any job fair: one that offers jobs at fine places on the order of McDonald's and Walmart. For such low-pay jobs, these people are standing in line hours in advance, in the pre-dawn cold, the way some people -- luckier people -- might stand in line to get concert tickets. And even as early as the chapter point-of-view character arrives, he's already way farther back in line than seems tenable.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is despair in action. Not, one imagines, coincidentally, King drops a mention of The Grapes of Wrath; these folks may as well be in the Great Depression, for all the good the differences between it and the Great Recession are doing them.
Elsewhere in the book, other signifiers of the Times In Which We Live come through clear as a bell: as Mr. Mercedes plays out, we get occasional mentions of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, gay rights issues, the crumbling fortunes of big-box retailers like Circuit City, the dreary landscape of reality television, anti-1% sentiments, the ever-present threat of computer viruses to the technologically unsavvy, terrorist panic, sniper mania, and so forth. Few of these bells are rung very loudly; but their chiming is constantly present in the background of the tale, and the cumulative effect -- on me, at least -- was that Mr. Mercedes feels like one of the most in-the-now novels King has ever written. As much as anything else, it reminds me of Roadwork, that "novel of the energy crisis" that seemingly distilled the anger and panic over mid-seventies American turbulence into the tale of a grieving father looking for a violent way out of life.
As perhaps befits our times, Mr. Mercedes is a pulpier, less focused tale than Roadwork. It is also sunnier in its outlook, in that King holds out hope of Good triumphing over Evil; but it's also bleaker, in that the triumph is seemingly entirely of a personal nature, with no hints -- even vague ones -- that the broader picture might be capable of clearing up. "I guess this is the world we live in now," King seems almost to be saying; "isn't that fucked up?"
It is fucked up. And so is Brady Hartsfield, the novel antagonist. Boy, is he. He's a serial killer (arguably; his status as such is debatable) who in some ways typifies all of those churning fears listed above, and in other ways stands in opposition to them; he is both of his time and outside of it. I don't mean anything supernatural or science-fictional by that; I mean merely that in terms of his computer skills, his technological acumen, his callousness toward life, and his casual (if entirely hidden) set of prejudices (toward black people, gay people, fat people, old people, you name it), he is kind of a model for what many of secretly believe the average commenter on any given Yahoo! news story might be like. Except that he is more motivated and active. But otherwise, he is a bubbling cauldron of hatred of all stripes, and I could not help but make the connection: he's your average internet troll, but with the willingness to actually go into the world and cause some damage.
At the same time, he strikes me as being a sort of bizarro stand-in for the increasingly-fading Era Of White Man's Dominance. Someone with his brain and technical skills ought to, by all rights, be earning a shitload of money somewhere. Instead, he brings pizza home to his drunk mother after working two menial jobs. Ignore all the murder and psychosis for a moment, and see the backbone: it is that of the majority slowly becoming the minority. It is not by any means a major element of the novel, but it is there, I think, and it's part of what makes Hartsfield a compelling villain: he is both a symbol of the modern world and a symbol of the world that it has replaced.
PRO #2 -- DET. WILLIAM HODGES (RET.)
If Brady is a dual symbol, then so is Hodges, except that he is a more stable fellow than Hartsfield. As a retired homicide detective, he is at precisely the right age to be the sort of guy you'd expect to overhear railing against various aspects of the modern world. After all, he himself is an old white dude; he's being pushed out to sea by this culture, or so the narrative goes. And sure enough, when we meet him, is is adrift on a wave of bad food and even worse television. King spends several pages on giving us this version of Hodges, and when I initially read them, I thought he'd maybe spent a bit too much time.
In reconsidering things, I think he spent just the right amount of time. Hodges sits in his house, watching daytime television in which paternity tests devolve into fistfights and stern "judges" pass sentence on small-claims cases. I've often found myself wondering what sort of people actually watch shows like that, and the answer King gives is that it's despondent people who watch them. Worse than that: people who are so despondent that they don't even know how despondent they really are.
If I may digress a wee bit for a few moments, there are two things I'd like to mention as being worth consideration:
#1 -- that in his couch-potatodom, Hodges is of a type with another character in the novel: namely, Brady's mother, who gets drunk in front of the television (Survivor appears to be her jam) in an attempt to forget her misbegotten past. She's a grosser, more troubled person than Hodges, but they do at least share an affinity for zoning out in front of the tv screen.
#2 -- let's not forget that Stephen King, in the same Richard Bachman guise that brought the angry Roadwork into the world, also wrote The Running Man, which in some way anticipated reality television. But King/Bachman, in that book and in The Long Walk, foresaw a miserable future in which people would tune into programs to see people killed. Part of me feels that watching a real-life equivalent of the shows depicted in those books would be more dignified than watching the Kardashians or Judge Judy. Part of me also feels that Stephen King probably feels that way, and oh, what existential agita it must give the King of Horror to know that even he couldn't -- and didn't -- dream of something as awful as Sarah Palin's Alaska or Toddlers in Tiaras. Something like The Running Man (the fictional show, I mean) could at least be fought and defeated. How do you defeat Here Come Honey Boo Boo?
If you're Bill Hodges, it seems that you don't even really try. You've seen the world; you know that it's done for, and now that you're not entirely in it anymore, you might as well sit back and let its repulsive arms enclose you.
Hodges is an almost wholly successful character, and is certainly one of the better protagonists King has created lately. But he is not fully himself when we first meet him, perched there in front of his television; he is a broken, defeated man for whom fighting is no longer even an option. But, like many another great protagonist, his salvation arrives in the form of an archnemesis. Brady Hartsfield, perhaps displacing some of his feelings about another couch potato he knows, decides to try and tip the old man over from apathy into suicide, and in so doing, he awakens Hodges' sleeping, but by no means dead, sense of purpose. Without Hartsfield sending Hodges that letter, it seems likely that the retired detective would have simply lived out the remainder of his years in front of that television; with Mr. Mercedes in the picture, Hodges has motivation and drive again. Batman has found his Joker; Sherlock has found his Moriarty.
From there, the novel treats Hodges as a sort of retirement-age wish-fulfillment. He not only gets to defeat a dastardly villain, he gets to accost some young punks, he gets to mentor a young man with a hugely bright future, he gets to fuck a hot younger woman, and he gets to help nurse another young woman out of mental infirmity into useful health. You can practically feel Stephen King bellowing "RETIREMENT IS FOR DORKS!" and pumping a jubilant fist in the air during some sort of "old guys can still be badasses" rally. He sells the concept quite capably, and because of that, I'm curious to see what he's got in store for Hodges in the sequel, Finders Keepers (out in 2015).
CON #1 -- JIVE TALK
Look, man, I love a bit of post-racial satire as much as the next honk mahfah. I believe very strongly that if you can find a way to laugh at idiotic notions like racial bigotry (and other types of it as well), then you can gain a power over it. Bear in mind, of course, that I'm a pudgy middle-aged white dude who has never had much in the way of struggles during the course of his lower-middle-class (yet nevertheless relatively cushy) life. So that means one thing to me whereas it might mean something entirely different to somebody else. As such, when engaging in Mel Brooksian racial satire, it's kind of important to know your audience.
Let me give you an example. I had a friend -- a black friend, ya kennit -- in college with whom I was able to engage in all manner of atrocious racial jokes. I can't remember how we struck up this peculiar bond, but strike it up we did. I think it might have actually been a result of the topic of Blazing Saddles coming up. In any case, we worked in the same office, a media relations office that played host to local and (occasionally) national media members. Well, he and I were at the office late one night working on separate projects, and at one point, we found ourselves engaging in the sort of mock insults that we frequently engaged in, which involved every racial slur we could possibly think of slinging at one another. All in good fun; all from a standpoint of being comfortable with each other and knowing that each had an ally in the other. It was grand old fun, as only elaborate inside jokes can be.
Thing is, the office wasn't empty, and we didn't know it; there was a reporter from what might fairly be called a major national magazine sitting there, hearing it all. We both realized it at the same time, and in my mind, the scene plays like something out of a sitcom: we are both yapping racial slurs at one another, laughing, laughing, laughing, when all of a sudden we simultaneously sense that something is wrong. We turn our heads in the same direction; cut to the national reporter -- who, of course, is a black man -- sitting at a desk with his fingers poised in mid-type above the keyboard of his laptop, looking at us with a slack-jawed look of astonished horror on his face. My friend and both both begin talking over one another, trying to explain, "No, man, it's not like that, we're just messin' with each other!"
But, see, it was beyond explanation. Unless you were either my friend or me (or one of several other friends who were in the same band with us), it made no sense. It was, literally, inexplicable. The reporter just blinked at us for a few moments and then went back to typing his story, which presumably was a bit more difficult to concentrate on for at least the next few minutes. Nothing ever came of the incident, but I suspect that he probably still tells a very different version of it to friends and colleagues to this day.
That's the thing about inside jokes, though; you've got to be careful who's listening, otherwise you run the risk of being misunderstood, and i a major way.
So it is, I think, with the odd, offputting relationship between Hodges and Jerome, his young, Harvard-bound friend who not only serves as his primary technical adviser, but also as his lawnboy and as his Token. Now, lest I be misunderstood, I want to be very clear about this: I don't think that Stephen King is a racist. Nor do I think that his depiction of Jerome's jive-talk is racist. It's clearly -- explicitly, even -- satirical in nature. It's an inside joke between Hodges and Jerome, just as surely as the ones me and my friend shared.
So when I say that this jive-talkin' business is a negative for the book, please understand that I'm not accusing Stephen King of racism. I am, instead, accusing Stephen King of a rare instance of failure in character building. Because whereas I might be able to bring some personal experience to bear in the matter of Jerome's "Tyrone" persona and its dialect, I suspect that a great many potential readers might be more like the proverbial national reporter, sitting in the corner sort of horrified at what they are witnessing, and hoping that nobody will notice them noticing. King's error, I think, was a simple one: he did not give us any insight into how this inside joke between Jerome and Hodges got started. Inside jokes are all about setup and context, and you cannot simply skip to the punchlines in trying to deliver them to a new audience; that is contrary to how they work. Here, King wants the punchlines (such as they are) to land effortlessly, and for the result to be that we develop a bond with Hodges and Jerome just as they have developed a bond with each other.
It doesn't work. It isn't an outright failure; I get the idea, so I can sort of shoehorn myself into the position King wants me to be in. But in so doing, we've gone from what sought to be an effortless thing to an act of willful effort on my part; King has forced me to force myself into that friendship, whereas I ought to have been there when the friendship began. It's a misstep. Not, for my tastes, a crippling one (the way the internal language of the marriage in Lisey's Story was); but it might well cripple the novel for some readers. It seems to have crippled the novel for Dog Star Omnibus to some degree, and Bryan McMillan in his review of the novel there is right to refer to The Plant as another such instance of King's occasional fascination with having a well-to-do black man parody Stepin' Fetchit caricatures for no particularly good reason.
McMillan also, quite rightly, calls out King's predilection for having his villains be racist scumbags, thereby allowing him to give voice, via their mouths and brains, to all manner of horrid bigotry. If I am interpreting his thoughts correctly, McMillan feels about this the same way I feel about having a villain run over a puppy or a kitten or something in a movie: it's a lazy sort of shorthand for spelling out that This Is A Bad Guy. Amazingly, that Dog Star Omnibus review is the first and only review of Mr. Mercedes I've read that even gets close to criticizing the novel's racial elements.
For my part, I'm less troubled by the specifics of what King does with Jerome's "Tyrone" routine than I am with his failure to do it correctly. He probably should have just not done it at all, but if he HAD to go that route, it's seriously problematic for him to have done so without giving us the proper context for it.
CON #2 -- M.I.L.F. ACTION
Yes, Brady Hartsfield has some hot son-on-mom action. There's not much to be said about that. I'm listing it as a negative, but my reason for that is a bit unfair: it's not so much that I think it works against the novel (it doesn't), but because it was THE THIRD GODDAM NOVEL I READ IN A ROW that included a major subplot about parent-on-child incest. Between Robert McCammon's They Thirst, Tabitha King's Caretakers, and Mr. Mercedes, I began to fear that I'd made some genuinely regrettable choices about the sorts of books I was reading. There are some thing you just don't want to become a trend. (Happily, Peter Straub's Floating Dragon ended that nasty little streak.)
It's unfair for me to give King a demerit for this. In fact, the icky relationship between Brady and his mother is one of the novel's most successful elements. It's horrific, but also brutally sad. As origin stories for serial killers go, it's one I can buy into, and the payoff -- in which she accidentally eats the poisoned hamburger meant for Jerome's dog -- is both wonderful and awful. Wonderful because I really did not want poor innocent Odell to get killed, but also awful because, good lord, even an incestuous monster deserves a less agonizing death than that.
CON #3 -- SERIAL KILLER AS SUPERMAN STRIKES AGAIN
This is a mild complaint, but I'll make it anyways: Brady "Mr. Mercedes" Hartsfield is, like many fictional serial killers, so competent and all-knowing that he almost turns into a supervillain. I understand: it's a trope of the genre. And it doesn't bother me all that much. It's just that when a guy is as competent as Hartsfield is, capable of getting away with the things he gets away with, does it not strain credulity that he would fail to put a note on that poisoned hamburger? Something like "this has been poisoned and will kill you DO NOT EAT"? You know, just in case?
In fact, he occasionally seems so competent that it feels almost impossible for anyone to defeat him. He's hardly the first fictional killer about which that could be said, and I understand that the idea is to make the hero seem more virtuous by making the enemy against which he fights increasingly evil. It's just that, for me, things like that can go too far, and I'd argue that they go a wee bit too far here. The tone of the opening chapter -- so bleak, so dismal -- eventually gives way to something that is a bit more generic (in the sense of being of a specific genre), a bit pulpier, a bit more cartoonish. The good of that -- Hodges' resurgence, and especially his relationships with Janey and Holly -- outweighs the bad, so this is, again, a mild complaint; but it's a complaint nonetheless.
I'm running out of gas here, so let's resort to bulletpoints for the remainder of the post:
- Hartsfield creates a profile for Hodges at Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella, complete with a username: kermitfrog19. Now, if I'm somehow missing something here, somebody clue me in, but . . . since when did you need ONLY a username on a website of that nature? Wouldn't you also need a password? Especially for a site that is as security-conscious at UDBU allegedly is. This feels like a weird gaffe on King's part, and I'm surprised nobody caught it in the editing process. Whatever King's editor is earning, it's too much, in my opinion; King (or his publisher) is not getting his money's worth. Other than this misstep, I find the extent to which the novel buys into the computer culture to be very persuasive, and admirably of-its-time.
- Another misstep, this one of the anachronistic variety: when Janey is telling us the backstory of her sister Olivia, she mentions that Olivia was going to take Janey to see U2 when they were younger, but that her illness prevented it. The context of this implies that this was while Janey was still in high school. Soon thereafter, Janey mentions that Olivia got married in the late seventies, and that after her marriage, she and Janey drifted apart. Well, okay. But U2's first album didn't come out until 1980, and did not play in America until December of that year. So this timeline does not match. Is that a big deal? No, not really, but I'm a big U2 fan, so I noticed. Let's just assume Janey got some of her details wrong.
- By the way . . . "kermitfrog19"? 19?!? Is King cluing us into something here? He's no dolt; he knows that XX% of his audience is going to react any and every time a "nineteen" reference is made in his works. And there's at least one other. Apart from that, the only Dark Tower connection I can see here is the intimation that Mr. Mercedes is set in the Keystone Earth reality of Song of Susannah; there are references to the movie versions of both Christine and It, both of which Hodges has seen. Working against that somewhat is a potential Doctor Sleep crossover: the boy-band Hartsfield plans to bomb is 'Round Here, the same boy-band that Abra loves in that novel. Thing is, Doctor Sleep takes place in the same reality as It, by virture of Dick Hallorann's appearance in both; so this must mean that 'Round Here exists on multiple levels of the Tower. Yay...?
- One other fun crossover: a roadie at the 'Round Here concert wears a Judas Coyne t-shirt. Coyne is the main character of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. There may be other crossovers that I missed, and if so, I'd be happy to hear about it in the comments.
- The novel is written almost entirely in the present tense, which is one of the few times King has ever adopted that technique for a novel. In fact, I'm not sure he's ever done it; I'm too lazy to go scour my bookshelf and find out definitively.
- One of my favorite lines from the novel: "Life is a crap carnival with shit prizes."
- Where, exactly, is this novel set? Unless I am mistaken, the city is never named. I believe it to be somewhere in Ohio, but I'm not sure. This is a much vaguer tactic than King typically follows in terms of the setting, and I'm immediately intrigued as to why he might have done such a thing. Is there some sort of a reason for it, in the story sense? Or is he doing it to somehow make the novel's themes seem more universal?
Ultimately, my takeaway from Mr. Mercedes is that it has some serious problems, but that it also has some serious virtues. It's a vital work, and an entertaining one, and I'm intrigued to see what King has in store for the sequel; I'm not entirely enthused, but I am definitely intrigued. I'm glad to see my favorite author continuing to refuse to just do the same thing over and over again. He is still writing as though writing is much more to him than merely something to do, or (worse) a paycheck to be earned; anyone accusing him of either of those things isn't paying attention.
I don't need every time at bat from him to result in a home run; not every book can be 11/22/63, or even Joyland. I'd say Mr. Mercedes gets on base, and that's a pretty good result.