Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Brief Review of "The Outsider"

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.


  1. Mr. Burnette:

    Thanks for the review.

    I’m not much of a fan of the Hodges trilogy either and was kind of afraid this one might go down that same route.

    I can see what you’re saying about Dreamcatcher, but is it really enough that we should be happy with one part of a novel keeping the other part afloat? Are my expectations too high? It's probably too much to expect a homer with every at-bat.

    Anyway, I’m still looking forward to reading it, and I’m sure the hook will be set deep enough that I’ll crash through it too.

    1. You may well end up enjoying it more than I did. I don't think the ending is bad, by any means; I just don't think it's anything special.

      I think it definitely IS too much to expect a homer every at-bat. And yet, I do expect it; I've been conditioned to and cannot help it. As for whether it's enough for it to be half a great novel, well ... if that's all we ever got, then no. But in this instance, I think the stuff that works works REALLY well and is worth crowing about.

      I should also add that by this point it is clear (if only to me) that I do not always fully grasp King's novels upon first read. I've had too many experiences being indifferent to one on first read and then loving it on reread to feel 100% secure in my first impressions.

      So who knows? A reread on this one in a few years might find my approval of it skyrocketing. I'd love for that to happen.

    2. I see your point about not getting things on the first read. Sometimes coming back to it later gives you a whole different take because you're a different person, at least in some way. I guess it might be allowing it to breathe or age like wine - but I know jack about wine.
      Once again, thanks. Always enjoy reading your stuff.

    3. Thanks! I totally agree that revisiting a book (or movie, etc.) sometimes emphasizes that you've become a different person. And, in other instances, it can help you remember the person you were when you first read it. I dig that.

  2. Excellent review. It’s funny, though; I was on-board from the start but it wasn’t until the halfway point that I really fell in love with this novel.

    It’s neat how readers can get different things out of a book.

    (But I can’t help hoping this is the final time King writes a crime drama.)

    1. Based on the (admittedly limited) things I've seen from other readers so far, I think your experience is more typical than mine. And certain aspects of the final third are sticking with me, so who knows? This might be similar to the experience I had with "Revival," where I loved it loved it loved it loved it then was disappointed by the ending, only to 100% love it on reread.

      Either way, I agree: it IS neat that different readers can get different things out of the same book. It'd be an incredibly lame world otherwise.

  3. I wonder if King watched the TWIN PEAKS revival? There's some sight thematic overlap from the little I've read. Not enough to say oh he got the idea from that but just some little things from the series that I can see maybe getting his storytelling mind going, and then he combined those with the older idea from Owen's baseball days. Hmm. Well, something for me to look for, anyway, when I get around to reading it.

    1. This comment intrigues me mightily re.: Twin Peaks. I gotta get cracking on that show, man.

  4. I loved the first big chunk of the novel, I really thought we were in for a new Dark Half-level pulpy vintage work from him. It totally falls apart for me soon after the arraignment. The tension starts to ebb away, we get a couple hundred pages of people milling about and talking, and most of the characters with a real emotional stake in the story... take a backseat for some reason. That is a decision I don't get, especially as King is so good at presenting intense emotional journeys on the page.

    The posse at the end... is built up of functional side-characters, not the ones with the most reason to engage, or who had lost the most. If Ralph actually had to work with the people his actions, or the outsider's actions, had actually hurt... Ollie for instance, or Marcey... there would've been a really kick to the second half, and the set-up would've had an actual pay off.

    And that brings me to the big point here, which is that Holly doesn't belong in this novel. It's like if Cujo had ended with Miss Desjardin flying in and just shooting the dog or something. I cannot understand that decision, especially as King recaps the plot of the Hodges books multiple times here, which brings the pace of the novel grinding to a halt every time, and it further stops Holly from seeming like just another character who belongs in the book.

    I think Holly pulls the focus and attention away from the, like, emotional heart of the story. I think her role, in getting Ralph to believe something so alien to his values, and in facing down the outsider (especially given they already had another investigator at play in the story) would've been better served given to Marcey, or even one of the Petersons. Killing the outsider would've been a form catharsis for them. I don't see what killing the outsider does for Holly's arc, and it is literally something she's done before, which is why it is so unsatisfying.

    On maybe a slightly meaner note, beyond her not slotting into this story... Holly's 'poopy' and imdb trivia schtick is just awkward and played out by this point. I am extremely done with her.

    So yeah, I'm disappointed in the book, but that isn't to say its bad - it just hooked me in and then went in directions that weren't satisfying.

    1. "if Cujo had ended with Miss Desjardin flying in and just shooting the dog or something" -- Oh, man. Wouldn't that be something? (It would: something that should never, ever happen. But a funny mental image.)

      I am more or less on the same page with you regarding all of this. I don't have quite so much negativity toward Holly; I think she's okay here, but I do agree that she pulls focus away from the novel at a time when it may be disadvantageous. I hadn't really thought about it in that way, but I think this is entirely because I knew going into the novel that Holly showed up. I think that if I had not known that, I might have focused more on her arrival as the problem.

      As is, I think I just accepted that part of it. But it's weird. She kind of becomes the novel's main character, doesn't she? I'm both okay with that and not okay with it.

      Jesus. The more time I spend with this book, the more my opinions of it reflect that CANT/MUST divide.

      "The posse at the end... is built up of functional side-characters, not the ones with the most reason to engage, or who had lost the most." -- That's a really interesting point.

      "Killing the outsider would've been a form catharsis for them. I don't see what killing the outsider does for Holly's arc, and it is literally something she's done before, which is why it is so unsatisfying." -- More excellent points!

      "Holly's 'poopy' and imdb trivia schtick is just awkward and played out by this point. I am extremely done with her." -- I'm okay with her, but the "poopy" thing needs to die in a fire, for sure.

      Thanks for leaving these comments! Great stuff.

  5. One thing I wanted to mention in the review and totally forgot about: the detective, Ralph Anderson, shares a name with a child in "Storm of the Century" (who is the son of a policeman).

    IN NO WAY is this novel's character the same as the Ralph Anderson in "Storm of the Century." And that being the case, it's a baffling decision on King's part to have named him that. But I get how it probably happened; he probably just forgot. Dude's invented enough characters to populate a small city, he can't be expected to remember every name.

    But there is zero excuse for an editor not to have caught this.

    1. I haven't read the book but I did see the Colbert interview where he talks about being interested in "Doubles" maybe that has something to do with it or "other worlds than these" is a reason.

      The first couple times I read Ralph Anderson was in this I thought it was the dude from Insomina I was super confused.

    2. That (plus the dude in The Stand) now makes at least four prominent Ralphs in the Kingverse!

    3. Also Ralph McCausland from The Tommyknockers. Not particularly prominent, but one of a slew of memorable characters from one of my favorite King books!

    4. I dig that book, too. Way underrated.

    5. I was reminded tonight (via hearing him mentioned in the new episode of the Derry Public Radio podcast) that Carrie's father is named Ralph White.

      So there's another one!

  6. Thanks for the review. I should be able to start reading this in the next couple of weeks. If all I get, even from King, is a page-turner with great characterizations, but falls short of his best, I'm cool with that. I liked Mr. Mercedes more than you did, but I think you'd be able to say that it at least succeeded on those two levels.

    I'm glad you are able to recognize that churning out masterpiece after masterpiece is a tall order, and patently unfair, even for Uncle Steve. And we still have another couple new releases in 2018, plus several adaptations in the works. Good time to be a fan.

    1. A very good time to be a fan indeed!

      And you're very right to say that even if this falls short of being his best -- which is only MY opinion, mind you; always worth remembering that -- it's still a page-turner. I got two lengthy days' worth of can't-stop-reading fun out of the deal. I've got NOTHING to complain about beyond quibbles.

  7. I haven't read the book, but your description of the 'evidence vs iron-clad alibi' reminded me strongly of a very similiar plot-point in 'The Dark Half'. IIRC doesn't Sheriff Pangborn think he has Thad cold on fingerprint evidence, only for Thad and his wife to inform the sheriff that they were at a party with something like 10 other people?

    1. Good call -- I'd forgotten about that plot point. This novel does play a bit as if King had remembered that part of "The Dark Half" and decided to expand the idea with heightened stakes and more compelling evidence (on both sides).