Well, in the words of Rustin Parr, I'm finally finished.
I'm going to give you as bare-bones and spoiler-free of a review as I can possibly manage. I'll be able to manage it pretty well, too, although there is one major plot point that, frankly, it's kind of nuts for me NOT to talk about. But since it's been absent from the book's marketing, I'll leave it for you to find out on your own; seems like the right thing to do.
I ingested The Outsider -- which spans 561 pages -- in a mere two days, and that right there ought to tell you something about the novel. That's a big chunk of reading and not a long span of time in which it was accomplished. So was it compulsively readable? You better believe it.
Unfortunately, that's not enough for me to give the novel anything more than a weak recommendation. Allow me to explain.
What we've got on our hands here is a GREAT idea from King. He has said (in an interview with CBS This Morning) that the idea has been in his head since his youngest son was playing Little League. That's bestselling author Owen King he's referring to; bestselling Owen King, who is himself firmly in the lock of being middle aged. In other words, the idea goes back a while.
And it was worth holding onto. It's like this: one day, as a Little League game reaches its literal fever pitch, a squad of policemen walk onto the field and very publicly arrest one of the team's coaches (Terry Maitland) for murder. To be specific, for the rape/mutilation of a small boy. They've got Maitland's fingerprints all over the crime scene; they've got DNA evidence; they've got multiple eyewitnesses that put him in the vicinity at the time, and in the vehicle which was used for the abduction. In other words, they've got what amounts to incontrovertible evidence.
Problem is, as it turns out, Maitland also has about as ironclad an alibi as one could hope for.
In essence, the evidence proves he was in two places simultaneously.
How would one solve a dilemma like that, legally?
That's the idea. It's phenomenal, and King writes the blue blazes out of it. For about half of the book's length, what you get is a slow exploration of all sides of the case, and it leads -- I don't think this is a spoiler (and apologize if you do) -- to an inescapable conclusion: when you've eliminated the natural, must it not be the supernatural to which you turn for an explanation?
All of this is very strong, as well; at least at first. Seeing seasoned detectives and lawyers accept the notion of there being even a chance of the existence of the supernatural is a powerful and effective way of getting readers to accept it; via them, it feels real to us. Granted, we've long since accepted the supernatural within the works of Stephen King, but here, it's different; because our initial points of view do not even have such ideas anywhere in their minds, and are instead agents of the rational, we have no choice but to feel the fundamental awesomeness of the conflict.
Great, right? Right.
Problem is, King then has to resolve the matter on a story level. If you've been reading King, or even just seeing his movies, for any amount of time, it will not shock you to learn that yes, indeed there IS a supernatural explanation. And when we reach it, at almost the precise moment when the novel ceases being about the possibility and starts being about the fact, the exquisite balloon that King has been inflating begins to noisily deflate, making that farting noise dying balloons make.
Some of this is leavened by strong character work, but for me it was not enough. What was an inspired concept is resolved in mundane fashion.
To some extent, The Outsider reads like a continuation of the fascination with police-procedural novels that King developed for his Bill Hodges trilogy. I am only marginally a fan of that series (I like the first two novels reasonably well and mostly disliked the third), and might, given my own preferences, have preferred that King not keep getting dinner from this particular chicken-shack. But I love the guy, and can refuse him very little, so if he wants to keep going there, hey, who am I to object? Nobody, that's who. And anyways, I spent roughly the first 300 pages of this novel thinking that he'd managed to finally perfect the approach (particularly the unconvincing integration of the supernatural with the realistic that he'd attempted in End of Watch). I was quite excited about it, actually.
Alas, in the end, I've got to mark it down as a misfire.
And you know what? That's okay. It isn't his first, and it likely won't be his last. I'm reminded more than anything of Dreamcatcher, which similarly falls apart once the big turn comes in the story. But, in the case of both novels, I was about as engaged before that point as it's possible for me to be engaged while reading.
And THAT, my friends, ain't nothing. A misfire? In the grand scheme of things, yeah; for me, it was. But that's because I'm greedy. I want every King novel to be an A+, because he gives me one every few years, and I crave it. Nobody can do it twice a year, though, and sometimes a book just has to be a B-. Is that the worst thing a book can possibly be? Fuck no, it isn't, especially when the first half of it IS a doggone A+.
My objections notwithstanding, King is operating at a high level of craft here. That I think the art side of it suffers somewhat is true, but there's something to be said for a guy who puts as much effort into his work as King clearly does. He's not coasting; he's still interested in breaking new ground for himself, and while what he could be giving us is generic vampire- or werewolf- or zombie-centric hooey, he's still pushing that envelope.
For example, in this novel, he's adopted a setting which is completely new to him: Oklahoma. He could have just set it in Maine and done the Stephen King version of playing his greatest hits with a couple of tracks off the new album scattered in for pee-breaks, but no, he's resolutely refusing to do that.
I give him all the credit in the world for it.
I just wish I liked this particular book a leeeeetle better.
Maybe YOU will. Feel free to tell me about it in the comments, and if you want to have a spoilery talk, I'll be glad to do it there.