Sunday, May 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: Stephen King's "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive"

Originally published in The Atlantic, May 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 96.

Given that he's known best for his heavily plotted horror novels, and not for his characters, it's a pleasant surprise to see Stephen King writing in the vein of, say, T. C. Boyle, with this clear, crisp, and entertaining short that enjoys to play with its participants as much as with its language. Then again, perhaps it's not a surprise to find King in such a playful mood, considering that he wrote this story as the penalty for losing a sports bet with his son (who provided the title of the tale). Whatever the case, be it ripped directly from actual headlines or just dreamed up from them, King offers us two views of a horrendous car crash.

It opens first with Brenda: "BRENDA HITS PICK-4 FOR $2,700 AND RESISTS HER FIRST IMPULSE" blares the section header, which doubles as its first line. It's a winning opener, and quickly establishes her as the sort of desperately poor, single woman with multiple kids for whom $2,700 is a massive jackpot. This applies, too, to her best friend (only friend, emphasizes King) Jasmine, from high school, with whom she decides to head out on a Thelma & Louise-like "road trip" -- escapism at its finest, as if by speeding away (ostensibly to hit up their parents for cash) they can avoid their problems:

[T]hey are chanting ["road trip"] while the three kids bawl in Brenda’s Sanford apartment and at least one (maybe two) is bawling in Jasmine’s North Berwick apartment. These are the fat women nobody wants to see when they’re on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there’s nobody better in sight.

Meanwhile, every other section follows Phil and Pauline, quickly introduced as "SO THESE TWO OLD POETS WHO WERE ONCE LOVERS IN PARIS HAVE A PICNIC NEAR THE BATHROOMS." They're well-off writers, on their way to give a poetry reading, and they can take the time to relax in the relative quiet of a roadside rest area, and have a custard-pie and red-tea picnic, the sort who flip a coin to decide which one gets to read the Times's Arts Section first and who make the poignant observations about Herman Wouk still being alive . . . even as the Brenda/Jasmine sections tarnish such shallow poignancy. Who the fuck cares about Herman Wouk, after all? That's the way in which King chooses to close his story:
Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks. “What the fuck does it look like?” she says.

This is as great a use of the split narrative as you're going to get, with priorities shifting mid-sentence and veering across the lanes of what had, up until then, been a rather tidy story. If we were in the laid-back Phil and Pauline camp before, we're now plunged into their own realizations: "The windshield disintegrates; glass pebbles sparkle for a moment in the sun and she thinks—blasphemously—beautiful." That word, blasphemous, is a perfect choice, and though only moments before she'd gladly skip the horrors of the Times's front pages for the trivial comforts of the Arts, she's now mutely horrified by the sight of bystanders showing up to take pictures: "The woman raises her own cell phone and takes a picture with it. Pauline Enslin observes this without much surprise. She supposes the woman will show it to friends later."

If you insist, you can criticize the flatness of some of the characterizations here: they're poor and, what's more, they're aware of how poor they are. But it's better to dwell on the creative ways in which King speaks toward their condition, specifically in the way they describe government money as a mirage: "Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never color fast." Color is a recurring theme between the two narratives; the two poor women (poor in both senses, then) see gray, whereas the poets -- who are old and literally gray -- surround themselves with a feast of colors. (It is the tragic news that is black and white.) No, King knows what he's doing, and if he takes a few shortcuts to get there, they are perfectly justifiable ones, ones that bring you highly opinionated, history-packed sentences such as these:

She’s seen a lot of that grayness lately. Here they are in a three-room third-floor apartment, no guy in the picture (Tim, the latest in her life, took off six months ago), living pretty much on noodles and Pepsi and that cheap ice cream they sell at Walmart, no air-conditioning, no cable TV, she had a job at the Quik-Flash store but the company went busted and now the store’s an On the Run and the manager hired some Taco Paco to do her job because Taco Paco can work twelve or fourteen hours a day.

They smile into each other’s used faces. Although Phil has been married three times (and has scattered five children behind him like confetti) and Pauline has been married twice (no children, but lovers of both sexes in the dozens), they still have quite a lot between them. Much more than a spark. Phil is both surprised and not surprised. At his age—late, but not quite yet last call—you take what you can and are happy to get it.

Finally, for those of you who think -- as I often do -- that King is a hack horror writer, inventive in ideas but lax in execution, I'll close with these two fantastically descriptive lines:
  • "She opens one eye in a reverse wink that is amusingly seductive."
  • "He sees a shatter of taillight glass like a patch of strawberries. He sees a severed arm caught in a bush. In the flames he sees a melting baby seat. He sees shoes."

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