Friday, May 18, 2018

The World's A Sorry Schoolroom Sometimes: "Dolores Claiborne" Revisited, Part 1

Having traipsed our way through Gerald's Game, we now turn our attentions to Dolores Claiborne, and I immediately sense -- perhaps to the relief of some of you! -- that I'm not going to have anywhere near as much to say about this novel.  In no way should this be taken as a reflection on its quality.  Its quality is substantial, and in fact I'd say that of the two, I prefer Dolores Claiborne pretty handily ... and that despite being unreservedly impressed by Gerald's Game on this revisit.  Both are grade-A stuff; but in my opinion, Dolores Claiborne is an A+.

That doesn't mean I've got nothing to say, though.  Let's find out what it amounts to!


We're going to begin with some business.  You sometimes see Dolores Claiborne listed as a 1993 publication, and that's quite reasonable given the fact that the copyright date in the book -- and it's listed this way in all three editions I own -- is, in fact, 1993.

Despite this, it was published in 1992.  I have no clue why the book itself says 1993; my best guess is that it was an error of some sort that became legally binding and has therefore been permitted to stand.  But who can say?  Not this blogger.  This blogger CAN say that he is almost positive he read the book during the Christmas break after his first semester of college; specifically, I read it while visiting my grandparents in Creola.  This would have been in the waning days of 1992, so let's say probably December 26 or 27.

I say "almost positive" because I cannot rule out the technical possibility that we visited Creola later that year than usual, and that it might have been in the first days of 1993 that I actually read the novel.  But I put the odds of this as being very slim indeed.

Regardless, let's look at a few hard facts:

  • in an interview with W.C. Stroby in the July 1992 issue of Fangoria, Dolores Claiborne is said to be earmarked for publication in December 
  • Kirkus evidently reviewed the novel in the September 1, 1992 issue, and they list the publication date as December 7
  • the New York Times reviewed the novel in its November 16, 1992 issue
  • an interview with King in the Times on November 18 said that the novel "is being released this week" 
  • Kevin Quigley's Chart of Darkness lists the publication date as December 6, and says that the book went straight to the #1 position on the Times list of bestsellers, remaining there for the remainder of the year
  • a second Times review (this one in brief) seemingly followed on December 27

Add all that up, and I feel pretty good about saying that this book definitively WAS published in 1992, regardless of what it says inside the book itself.  (And I feel similarly good about continuing to claim -- for the one people in the entire world [me!] who care about this -- that I read the book shortly after Christmas.)

So there you have it; done and dusted.  All you suckers out there who keep saying 1993, you've been misled, but adjust your lists accordingly because it's 19 and 92 and that's just all there is to it.

Moving on, I now reveal to you that I considered writing this entire post in a Dolores-esque dialect.  Ida enjoyed doin that, I recokon, but since Id onlya been able to do it in my own Southern twang, I reckon itda got real old real quick for everone who aint me.

You dodged a bullet there, is what I mean to say.

Opinions vary on whether King himself ought to have fired the bullet that is the dialect in Dolores Claiborne, because there is no dodging that sucker.  For my part, I think it is (A) totally understandable when writers want to write in dialects and (B) more often than not preferable that they not give in to that urge.  To some extent, "dialect" automatically means "other than us," and that can be icky at times. 
I don't necessarily think Dolores Claiborne is one of those times, but you might, for the above-stated reason or possibly just because you find it annoying.  If that's you, I empathize, because it's often me.
Maybe the difference for me in this instance is just that I love the damn novel -- and its lead character -- so much.  And I suspect that is more or less what this post is going to be about.
The structure and format of the novel is well worth talking about, since it is somewhat unusual among King's books (and probably novels in general).  There are no chapter breaks; there aren't even any paragraph breaks.  It is -- with the exception of a brief (not even quite three full pages) bit at the end -- a single, sustained monologue by the titular heroine.  She's being interviewed by a couple of police officers, telling her story; her stories, really. 
Whatever slight annoyance might be prompted by the dialect is surely outweighed by the sheer verve with which King disappears into Dolores's voice.  His success with that is immediate, absolute, and sustained for three hundred pages.  If you told me that Dolores is King's single finest character, I'd find myself having to think whether I might well not agree with you; for me personally, I think Roland Deschain takes that particular cake, but ... I dunno ... you might be onto something there.
King knows that his format/structure is a little bit outside the norm for Constant Readers, so he spends the first few pages (among other pursuits) training us how to understand what's going on.  This is not to imply that he's turned into James Joyce or some hifalutin voice like that; it's just that there are a few things he needs us to know, and in order to let us know them, he's got to ensure that we can't and don't miss it.
  • The first sentence reads, "What did you ask, Andy Bissette?"  So we know right off the bat that everything we read is dialogue; it is a series or words literally being spoken aloud to somebody else -- Andy Bissette, to be specific -- within the story.
  • The second sentence is, "Do I 'understand these rights as you've explained em to me'?"  So now we learn that Andy is a police officer, and Dolores has been arrested or otherwise detained.
  • The third and fourth sentences: "Gorry!  What makes some men so numb?"  This tells us that Dolores is feisty, outspoken, and not particularly intimidated by the situation in which she has found herself.
  • A bit later (still on the first page): "And you can just get that smirk off your face, Frank Proulx."  So now we know there is a second officer present.  We might have occasion to think that it's a little clunky for King/Dolores to refer to these two men by their full names, but I think it's well within Dolores's character and approach to do so.  She says the names as though they accusations of a sort, as though these men have forgotten who they are, and she is reminding them.
  • A bit later (page 2): "One other thing before we get started -- I know you, Andy, and Frank, accourse, but who's this woman with the tape-recorder?"  Dolores asks her her name, and we are not privy to the answer.  So this is a dialogue, but it's a one-sided dialogue; we will over ever know what Dolores tells us.  And, by the way, she hasn't actually told us her own name yet!  but she does soon thereafter (page 3), saying, "There.  That's better.  You're Nancy Bannister from Kennebunk, and I'm Dolores Claiborne from right here on Little Tall Island."  This might feel ever so slightly clunky, but it's actually quite logical within the story, especially considering how Dolores is -- either naturally as a result of who she is or artificially as the result of conscious effort on her part -- maintaining a sort of control over the proceedings.
  • On page 4, she responds to something which seems as if it must be Andy trying to herd her back to the point of her being interviewed at all.  "Oh, gorry!  I'm gettin to it, Andy, if you'll just give me a little peace!  I'm just tryin to decide if I should tell it back to front or front to back."  By the next page, she's come to a decision on that score: "Tell you what: I'm gonna compromise.  Instead of telling her front to back or back to front, I'm gonna start in the middle and just kinda work both ways."  Just as Dolores wants these officers to know she is in control and will set the pace, King wants us to know that he is going to proceed in a roundabout fashion.  Be patient, he's telling us; you need to cede the high ground to Dolores herself.  
In this manner, he gives her complete power over us, and as the book progresses I think this power is developed sufficiently that Dolores is established as one of the most important fonts of wisdom and guidance within all of King's work.  I think she is meant to be seen as being more or less entirely correct about everything.  Is this a realistic way for us to look at a person?  Probably not.  Dolores isn't a person, however; she's a character.  She's a symbol.  She's an avatar of motherhood, in the way that when most of us are children -- and even when many of us are adults -- we simply accept our mother's word as The Word.
Do not, I beg you, raise in my presence the possibility of Dolores being an unreliable narrator.  You know how I feel about unreliable narrators.  Like spiders, I admit that they exist, and prefer never to see evidence of one.  But in the case of Dolores herself, I don't think it's a moot issue; not only is King disinterested in having us view Dolores as an unreliable narrator, he's interested in getting us to actively rely on her.
I, for one, don't find it to be much of a chore.  King's wit is uncommonly sharp in this novel, and he put virtually all of it in the mouth of Dolores herself.  Let's have a look at some of the best bits:
  • On the subject of knowing that people know some of the sordid details of her life: "I'm just about half-past give-a-shit." (2)  I just can't quite describe to you how delighted I was by that saying when I read it for the first time.  And the second.  And the third.  And...
  • "I feel a draft in here, Andy.  Might go away if you shutcha goddam trap."  (3)
  • "I'm just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that's what happens, more often than not, when you've had a foul life."  (5)
  • "[A]ll I'm trying to say now is that Joe St. George really wa'ant a man at all; he was a goddam millstone I wore around my neck.  Worse, really, because a millstone don't get drunk and then come home smellin of beer and wantin to throw a fuck into you at one in the morning.  Wasn't none of that the reason why I killed the sonofawhore, but I guess it's as good a place as any to start."  (6)  I'd point out here (A) that that is awesome and (B) that King is slightly inconsistent in terms of whether he drops the "g"s on the end of Dolores's words.  He mostly does.  "Wanting" becomes "wantin," for example.  And not "wantin'," with an apostrophe, the way a lot of people spell dialect; he does not use apostrophes in that manner in this novel.  But on occasion he lets a "g" stay on there, like with "morning" here.  This might mean that Dolores simply pronounces some words more formally than others, but it might also mean King -- or even his editor -- simply let one slip through the cracks every so often.  (Yet another possibility presents itself: in transcribin transcribing these bits, my fingers might get pushy and add those "g"s on there regardless of what my eyes and brain want em to do.  I'll try to not to, but I can't promise anythin.)
  • "There ain't no power on heaven or on earth that can stop people from thinkin the worst when they want to." (11)  2018 says hello!
  • "In those days I still believed the love of a man for a woman and a woman for a man was stronger than the love of drinkin and hell-raisin -- that love would eventually rise to the top like cream in a bottle of milk.  I learned better over the next ten years.  The world's a sorry schoolroom sometimes, ain't it?"  (15)  Killer.  Absolutely top-flight stuff, that.
  • "That child nibbled conversation the way a mouse'll nibble a cheese-rind, and what she couldn't eat, she stored away."  (80)
  • "He screamed again goin down.  It echoed off the sides of the well.  That was somethin else I hadn't figured on -- him screamin when he fell.  Then there was a thud and he stopped.  Just flat stopped.  The way a lamp stops shinin if someone yanks the plug outta the wall."  (199)
  • "I didn't believe it at first, but more time went by and there was no more sound, except for an owl callin somewhere off in a field.  I remember thinkin it sounded like he was askin hoew come his shift was gettin started so early today."  (201)
  • "That man had a tender heart and couldn't stand to see someone unhappy, I'll say that for him . . . and I'll say somethin else for Little Tall: where else could a man like that not only be constable for almost twenty years but get a sinner in his honor complete with a standin ovation at the end of it when he finally retired?  I'll tell you what I think -- a place where a tender-hearted man can succeed as an officer of the law ain't such a bad place to spend your life."  (248)
  • "Life went on, that's all.  Nobody popped up with last-minute information, like in a movie, I didn't try to kill nobody else, n God didn't strike me dead with a lightnin-bolt.  Maybe He felt hittin me with lightnin over the likes of Joe St. George woulda been a waste of electricity."  (251)
  • "Oh, and one other thing -- in January of 1964, I started goin by my maiden name again.  I didn't make no particular fanfare about it, but I was damned if I was gonna drag St. George around behind me the rest of my life, like a can tied to a dog's tail.  I guess you could say I cut the strong holdin the can . . . but I didn't get rid of him as easy as I got rid of his name, I can tell you that.  Not that I expected to; I'm sixty-five, and I've known for at least fifty of those years that most of what bein human's about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.  Some of the choices are pretty goddam nasty, but that don't give a person leave to just walk away from em -- especially not if that person's got others dependin on her to do for em what they can't do for themselves.  In a case like that, you just have to make the best choice you can n then pay the price."  (252)
  • "This is how.  This is how you pay off bein a bitch.  And it ain't no use sayin if you hadn't been a bitch you wouldn't've had to pay, because sometimes the world makes you be a bitch.  When it's all doom n dark outside and only you inside to first make a light n then tend it, you have to be a bitch.  But oh, the price.  The terrible price."  (253)
  • "And you know that feelin you get when it seems like you've been someplace before, and know all the things people are gonna say before they say em?  That feelin came over me so strong it was like there were ghosts all around me, ticklin me with fingers I couldn't quite see."  (256-7)  If I'm not mistaken, that feeling, you can only say what it is in French.
  • "There are some times in a person's life that don't have no real minutes in em, so you can't count em up."  (264)  Insert gif of somebody sobbing.
  • "I didn't try to figure out what I was gonna do; there's some figurin you're wiser not to try at night, because that's the time your mind's most apt to go bad on you.  Whatever you figure out after sundown, nine times outta ten you got it all to do over again in the mornin."  (275)  Given that 99.1% of my blogging is done after sundown, perhaps this explains some things.
  • "When McAuliffe ast me what Joe and I argued about before he got chokin me, I told him it was money on top n booze underneath.  The tops of people's arguments are mostly quite a lot different from what's on the bottom."  (288-9)
  • "One way or another, all the bridges between that time n this one have been burned.  Time's a reach, too, you know, just like the one that lies between the islands and the mainland, but the only ferry that can cross it is memory, and that's like a ghost-ship -- if you want it to disappear, after awhile it will."  (297)
Whole lotta gold in them thar hills, yessiree.  I only scratched the surface.
The cumulative effect of all of this is that by the end of the novel, I feel as if we are about as on the side of Dolores Claiborne as it is possible to be on a fictional character's side.  I feel a bit like if Roland had been able to go through a door marked THE HOUSEKEEPER and draw Dolores Claiborne into Mid-World with him, she'd have been running the ka-tet in no time flat.  She'd have marched every last one of them gunslingers straight to the Dark Tower, overthrown the Crimson King and Flagg and whoever else popped up along the way, and once they all got there they'd have remodeled it and turned it into an orphanage or something.
If only!
There's plenty more to be said about this character and her novel, but I do believe we'll call this one right here.
See you next time, when we'll examine two of the novel's other most important character: Vera Donovan and Joe St. George.


  1. Hey Bryant,

    I'm glad you're tackling this one since it was my very first King novel (and not a bad one to start with at that)! Haven't re-read it yet, but I suspect it'll not ONLY hold up, but will prove to be one of his most readable novels :) Some find the use of dialect a bit troublesome, but I think it reads perfectly.

    On a similar theme, I'm finding Rose Madder to be pretty readable too, at least so far (about 350 pages in). I know it doesn't have the best reputation (not helped by King himself having thrown the book under the bus!) but it's about as good as I remember his other "early-mid-90s-feminist" novels being.

    Anyway, looking forward to the next posts! And, I guess, to a review of The Outsider in the next couple (of) weeks??... Cheers.

    P.S. If Dolores DID join the ka-tet, I think Roland would get very annoyed (and exasperated, and not a little amused); King should really look into writing a hilarious spinoff novel with those two. He's got a cheeky side, so perhaps the marketing could be along the lines of:

    "The Newest TERRIFYING Offering, from The Master of Horror!!!"

    "Stephen King Calls Novel His 'Darkest Yet', quote: 'It's kinda like Lord of the Rings, Misery, and Kramer vs. Kramer all rolled into one, ya dig?"

    Said a man on the street: "I have no earthly idea why he wrote it, but I do know it's what we all needed round about now." He paused, then added: "That whole 'gun' thing, though... that's a problem, now, ain't it?"

    1. Working backwards:

      Yeah, Gunslingers might theoretically be a harder sell in this day and age, I suppose. Strange days we're living in.

      Your ad copy for that fake novel just makes me want it to exist all the more. The whole thing could be Roland just trying to figure out what she was saying.

      Regarding "The Outsider," I feel like I definitely will be putting SOMETHING about it up here. I envision it being just a quick, basic-reactions kind of thing, but who knows?

      "Rose Madder" is one that I myself have been throwing under the bus for many a year, but I'm finding myself really looking forward to revisiting it. I think I only ever read it once and listened to the audiobook once, so I remember virtually nothing about it. And that was so long ago I may as well be a different person. So I'm glad to hear you are enjoying it! That's makes me even more optimistic.

      As for "Dolores Claiborne" itself, that's a fine novel to begin a King fandom with. I love it! You've got to figure, every single time the guy puts a book out, it's the first King book for who knows how many thousands of people, some -- many? -- of whom go on to become devoted fans.

      I'm unlikely ever to start a podcast, but if I did, I think I could and would do one interviewing King fans about that very topic: their first King book (or movie). I'd LISTEN to that podcast for sure!

  2. I reckon DC is one of King's best-written and most.. like.. "writerly" books for lack of a better word.

    The buzzwords and genre trappings of 'a Stephen King book' don't really apply to Dolores, and I think it's the one book I'd recommend people who think they know his schtick and aren't interested in the writer they think they know. It isn't a magnum opus, and the SK novels that click with me the most like IT and The Stand have a weird, inimitable grandeur to them, but it is one of those books that makes you realise that, when he puts his mind to it, he can write almost anything and really land it. I just finished the abysmal 'End of Watch' this morning so it's actually good to have that reminder (liked Finders Keepers a lot tho, tho it is not at all convincingly integrated into the Hodges storyline, genuinely wonder if that one was a trunk novella he grafted the agency into later - Bill doesn't even really do anything until we're 2/3 of the way through, but i digress).

    The other thing is that I absolutely adore the hardback cover, the one you're using as the header atm. I'm not sure what about it makes me love it so much, but it is my favourite dust jacket ever.

    1. It's a great cover, for sure. It pops, which is always a welcome quality. (And not always a given for King novels, sadly!)

      I hear you on the subject of "End of Watch," which is currently my pick for his worst novel. It felt obligatory, as if he had no actual interest in writing it.

      I'm also with you on "Finders Keepers," which is not a favorite, but is definitely good. I don't know that I think it began its life as a trunk novel, but I wouldn't rule it out; and if nothing else, it seems possible that the idea was around and Hodges became grafted onto it. I didn't mind that aspect too much; better that than try to shoehorn Hodges & Co. in from the outset, I guess.

      Agreed that "Dolores Claiborne" would be a good one to give to people who think they don't like King. I wouldn't trust the opinion of someone who didn't like this novel, quite frankly. All opinions are valid, but some disqualify themselves as being useful to ME, and that'd likely be one of them.

      It's not a magunm opus in some ways, but ... it's also the story of damn near an entire life. Which is arguably as impressive as a magnum-opus-length achievement. How do you invent someone as rich as Dolores Claiborne and then have her live an entire life inside your mind? Where does that sort of ability come from?

      And I also agree that it is a very writerly book, even if I can't quite say what that means. And yet, it makes perfect sense to me!

  3. (1) (Checks own list to see what date he gave it... woohoo! Class of 92, baby!)

    (2) "Whatever slight annoyance might be prompted by the dialect is surely outweighed by the sheer verve with which King disappears into Dolores's voice. His success with that is immediate, absolute, and sustained for three hundred pages. " Man you are right, there. It's such a home-run of a book in that regard. That he succeeds at all is noteworthy, but to sustain it for the whole way the way he does (and tell the story he does while doing it) really makes it one of his more impressive achievements. You sketch this out pretty well with the book's opening lines. It seems almost effortless. I'd love to look at his manuscript for this and see how much was revised. I'm sure he edited it and all that, I just mean, I bet the original voice as he transcribed it from the-big-elsewhere-whence-his-ideas-spring came through on the first go.

    (3) FWIW I don't think DC is an unreliable narrator at all. Or, I should say, my inclination is to say: wrong use of the phrase, but I'm willing to hear the argument for what would make her one. Either way, as someone who enjoys quite a few of those pesky assholes in fiction, I agree DC is a great narrator and as you describe (a sort of wisdom font, an Aunt Jemima of sorts, but I don't mean in a bad or exploitative way, just that King's kind of romanticizing his own projection of folksy and sassy voice of authenticity.)

    (4) I still use "half-past-give-a-shit" as often as I can in conversation.

    (5) These are all great lines. Man, this book is so good! It and THE GREEN MILE, despite both being highly praised, are really underrated. I wonder if I'll think the same of INSOMNIA when I get there?

    (6) Unsurprisingly, I suppose, I hell-yeah the crap out of that THE HOUSEKEEPER door idea. If only indeed! How awesome would that be?

    1. (1) The best class of them all.

      (2) Oh, man, I'd go hog-wild for a look at any cuts/revisions made to this one. I don't think it would be exaggeration to call this novel a tour-de-force. And I'd love to see how we went about shaping it into that. But I can also imagine this one having sprung nearly fully-formed from his head, like fucking Athena from Zeus's noggin. That'd be pretty damn appropriate.

      (3) When I think about Stephen King's mother -- which isn't terribly often (what am I, a weirdo? [don't answer that!]) -- I kind of imagine her as sounding like Dolores. I suspect this may not be an accident. When King has described her, he's done so as a witty, tough-as-nails, will-do-anything-to-survive type. As always, I'm reluctant to impose much autobiography on these books on King's part; but my gut tells me that Dolores is based in part on Nellie Ruth, and that this explains why the novel has so much power behind it.

      (4) It's just so, so great. I also love "Grand High Poohbah of Upper Butt-Crack," which I have yet to work into an actual conversation as an insult. But there's still time. (And I *thought* I remembered "King Shit of Turd Mountain" coming from this novel, but that's apparently "The Green Mile" instead.)

      (5) I've had an up-and-down relationship with "Insomnia." It blew me away the first time I read it, but when I came back to it years later, I was hugely underwhelmed. But that was via audiobook, and I don't trust my opinions of audiobooks; those often distort the novel itself, in my opinion, and rarely for the better. (Although there are some which are of benefit, including the aforementioned "The Green Mile," expertly narrated by the late, great Frank Muller.)

      (6) It's such an awesome idea that I am legitimately annoyed with myself for ever having it. But I'm honestly not even kidding; Dolores is resilient enough that she'd be able to accept her new surroundings, and canny enough that she'd whip the whole company into shape.

      Needless to say, when my ridiculous "Dark Tower" / "Star Trek" crossover reaches that point, this is a thing that will happen. Haven't put much mental energy into that silliness in a while, though.

    2. (3) Yeah, totally! There's another idea for a post - the characters that we most think are Nellie Ruth King!

    3. Oooh...nice! The most likely, I think, sadly enough, is the character in "The Woman in the Room" who is dying of cancer. Although I wouldn't be surprised if there are others who aren't coming to mind for me immediately.

    4. Come to think of it, that might be kind of a really sad project... Maybe some other time!

    5. I should probably have mentioned somewhere in all of this that the novel is dedicated to Ruth Pillsbury King, so yeah, no doubt King's mother is all over this thing. Bad blogging, Bryant! Bad!

  4. Hi, I'm the W.C. Stroby whose 1992 FANGORIA interview with King you cite. (I'd also interviewed him the previous year for WRITER'S DIGEST:
    I have the original Viking ARC for DC along with the press materials, and the pub date is indeed listed on both as Dec. 7, 1992, with an on-sale date of Nov. 16. And you're right, the 1st edition is copyrighted as 1993 for some reason. An erratum, no doubt, as I had a copy of the ARC in hand for review purposes by late summer of '92.

    1. Thank you, sir! Not just for the confirmation, but for those great interviews.

      I'd love to know what caused the copyright date itself to be listed as '93. There's bound to be a story there. Probably a mundane one, but still; I can't help but be interested.