Saturday, January 29, 2011

Hearts in Atlantis By Stephen King

Hearts in Atlantis
By Stephen King
Copyright 1999

This book contains two short novels, a novella and two short stories.

Low Men in Yellow Coats
Ten year old Bobby Garfield has a new neighbor in the tenant that rents a room upstairs from an apartment he shares with his mother. Bobby takes an immediate liking to Ted Brautigan who introduces him to adult science fiction and literature and discusses the subjects with him as an adult.

Set in 1960, Bobby lives in a lower middle class section of a Bridgeport, Connecticut suburb. He pals around with two friends, John Sullivan (known to all as Sully John or S.J.) and Carol Gerber. Sully John is his pal, but Bobby develops a strong affection for Carol, with whom he shares a first kiss while at rest on the top of the Ferris wheel.

Ted surreptitiously hires Bobby to be his lookout. He wants Bobby to watch for lost animal posters and oddly drawn hopscotch patterns. These, he tells Bobby, are signs that the men who are looking for him are near. He says that Bobby will recognize these men because neither they, their strange yellow coats, or gaudy cars belong in the neighborhood – or any neighborhood. Bobby and Ted have to be secretive because Bobby’s mom is a suspicious, greedy woman, bitter about being widowed by a gambler who could not resist betting on an inside straight.

Bobby’s mother decides to attend a real estate seminar with her boss and some of his colleagues. Without any other option, she leaves Bobby in the care of Ted Brautigan. After passing a couple pleasant days in Ted’s room talking about books and drinking root beer, Ted tells Bobby that they must go to a seedy part of Bridgeport so Ted can place some bets. He needs to raise getaway funds because the Low Men know he is in the area.

Bobby and Ted make their trip to Bridgeport. While Ted is in the bar office placing bets, a server recognizes Bobby because of his resemblance to his father. Bobby learns that, far from being a lout, his father was a man who would “give you the shirt off his back and never bought a drink for a drunk.”

Ted and Bobby return to their home and await the results of the fight upon which Ted has placed his bet. Bobby goes to the park and finds Carol beaten badly by some private school kids that have picked on them all summer. Her shoulder is dislocated. Bobby scoops her up and takes her back to Ted who says he can put her shoulder right.

Just as Ted has finished putting Carol’s shoulder back, Bobby’s mom returns from her trip. She arrives with her face and body bruised and beaten. Bobby, gifted with a little extra insight for having been in contact with the magical Ted, surmises right away that his mother has been beaten (and probably raped) by her boss and other men.

Bobby’s mom is enraged when she walks in the door and finds a bruised and beaten Carol Gerber sitting on the lap of the elderly gentleman to whom she has entrusted her son. Full of rage at men from her own unpleasant encounter, she immediately jumps to the prurient conclusion that Ted has abused or raped Carol. Bobby and Carol protest that Ted had healed Carol, not hurt her. Not to be dissuaded from her rage, Bobby’s mother tells Ted that if he can get gone from the house in the time it takes her to walk Carol home, she won’t call the police. Ted promises to get gone.

On his way home from the park the next day, Bobby spots a lost pet poster that names Brautigan and provides a strange number to call. Bobby calls the number where an alien voice tells him to stay out of the affair. Knowing that he Low Men are on to Ted, he gets a cab and heads for the bar in Bridgeport to intercept Ted who will be going there to collect on his bet.

Just as Bobby finds Ted, the Low Men find them. Cornered in an alley, Ted promises to go peacefully if Bobby is let go. The Low Men have no interest in Bobby, who lacks Ted’s special talents, so they readily agree. Ted tells Bobby to collect the winnings and then go on with this life. He promises Bobby a post card from time to time if he is ever able to send one.

Bobby returns home to have his suspicions confirmed: his own mother called the number on the poster to turn in Ted Brautigan and collect the reward.

The denouement of the story is the profound change that comes over the once innocent, likable kid that was Bobby. He turns over the money he collected on Ted’s bet to his mother to do with as she pleased since it was money that seemed to make her happy. He starts to feel full of angst and rage. He beats one of the kids who beat up Carol, using a baseball bat. He starts smoking, drinking, and shoplifting. The kid who was so likable and well read has been hardened into a mean and dishonest adolescent.

His relationships with his two closest pals also falls apart. Sully John spent a large part of the summer away at camp. He came back with a new set of friends that did not include Bobby. He and Carol also drifted apart as they developed separate interests. Both of his former chums know that Bobby has changed dramatically – for the worse.

Bobby encounters Carol one day in the park, each of them headed for separate destinations – and destinies. Bobby tells her that he and his mother are moving to Massachusetts and hands her his new address. She scurries away, telling him that she must get home to make salad for dinner. As they part, Bobby screams, "I love you!"

Bobby moves on to Massachusetts and a new school where he soon gets into trouble. He is sent to reform school twice. Meanwhile, his mother has prospered in her real estate venture and is happy except for her only son. As the story winds down, his mom comments that between the two of them, they have really messed up their lives.

The story ends with Bobby’s mom telling him he has mail. Figuring it to be one of Carol’s increasingly infrequent letters, he rushes to open it. It is indeed a letter from Carol, but it is curt and to the point. Ted had mailed Bobby a message and wanted her to pass it along. Bobby opens the separate envelope hoping to find a post card. Instead, out fall rose petals. Bobby knows that Ted has once again escaped his prison and is roaming some other world.

This is the only story in the book that touches upon the Dark Tower story. Ted Brautigan is a breaker, just like the kid from Black House. He has escaped his prison beneath the Dark Tower and made his way into our world.

The Low Men are called this because, as we learned in Insomnia, there are many levels to the tower. These inhabitants of the lower levels are the drones for the power that is the Crimson King.

The rose petals we know came from the field of deeply rich red roses that grows all around the Dark Tower.

Low Men in Yellow Coats did not move the Dark Tower saga forward in any way. It drew a character from that story, brought him into our world, and made him the subject of the story. This book was published in 1999 – two years after the last Dark Tower book. It provided just a little taste to whet the appetites of fans of the story. It would be our introduction to the concept of breakers – a concept fully fleshed out in Black House which was published five years later.

Hearts in Atlantis
The title story of the collection tells of a young college freshman at the University of Maine and his formative first year at the university. The story is set against the backdrop of the radicalization of the peace movement as war and anti-war events unfolded in 1966.

Peter Riley compares his college to the lost continent of Atlantis because he sees all of the people important to him slowly sinking into an ocean where they will drown. Their anchor: the game of Hearts. Most of the residents of his dormitory are hooked on playing the game and neglect their studies in pursuit of “the bitch” which in Hearts is the Queen of Spades. While they neglect their studies, the fear of losing financial aide, dropping out, and upgrading to A-1 draft status is in the back of their minds, but they can’t quit playing.

Peripheral to this story is Carol Gerber, who is a student at the University of Maine and holds a work-study job in the school cafeteria as a dishwasher – a job she shares with Riley.

They fall in love. Carol has broken it off with her boyfriend, Sully John, while Peter has put off telling his high school flame back home that he has fallen in love with a college student.

Carol shows Peter a photograph of herself, Bobby Garfield, and Sully John when they were kids. She tells him the story about how, on the hottest day of the year, Bobby Garfield had snatched her up off the ground and run uphill to his home to get her assistance. She tells him it was the greatest act of kindness she’d ever had done on her behalf. She hints that something bad happened to Bobby in Vietnam.

While Peter’s obsession with Hearts continues to wreak havoc on Peter’s academic standing, Carol becomes increasingly radicalized by the anti-war movement. She is photographed at a protest for a newspaper and is fearful of what her parents will find out about her activities. When Carol decides to drop out of school, Peter is devastated. They make love one time, then she leaves the school with a note that says their lovemaking should serve as a goodbye and implores him to please not try to get in touch with her.

As the Hearts games march on, the war in Vietnam starts to become a stark reality rather than a movie playing out on television. They also become aware of the growing anti-war movement. A hardcore anti-war activist, Stokely Jones, who walks on crutches and mutters the phrase “rip-rip” obsessively as he crutches his way across campus introduces them to the peace symbol that he displays, painted on the back of his army fatigue jacket. They have little idea what the symbol really stands for, but they like it, so Peter and his buddy Skip start wearing it on their shirts.

One snowy night, an alarm is raised on campus for someone has vandalized one of the buildings. Spray painted on the building is an obscenity directed at President Johnson and a demand for an end to the Vietnam War. Peter and his friends are among the first to arrive and observe the crutch marks in the snow and know who defaced the building.

The story climaxes as Peter is dealt the best Hearts hand he’s ever been dealt. He prepares to “shoot the moon” when someone notices Stokely Jones crutching his way across campus at a feverish pace. The Hearts game is ignored as everybody turns to watch for the inevitable moment when Jones will slip on the ice and fall down. When it happens, everybody falls into fits of unstoppable laughter.

It occurs to a few of them, even as they are laughing, the Jones has fallen into a stream and could drown and would certainly freeze to death. The men on the floor abandon their card game to rescue Stokely Jones from certain death. They carry him to the infirmary where he is admitted with pneumonia. Surprisingly, even in his delirium, Jones is bitter about having been rescued.

Days later, their floor proctor and the dean interrupt their card game to inform them that Stokely Jones is the culprit who vandalized school property. Their evidence: Jones displays that symbol “invented by the Russians,” their floor proctor informs them, on his jacket.

In a sobering moment for all of these young men, the rivalries and petty disputes are put aside and they come together to defend Jones, whom none of them liked. Each claimed to display the peace symbol on some garment long before the vandalism. The evidence becomes to soft for the accusation to stand and Jones is off the hook.

That ordeal sobers Peter and his friend Skip who resolve to try to salvage their academic careers. They avoid the Hearts table, hire tutors, study at all hours, and plead for mercy with their professors. In the end, they get the grades and stay in school. Most of their floormates were not so fortunate. Many went to Vietnam.

Just before Christmas break, Peter receives a package from Carol. It contains a card, a letter, and a news clipping. The clip is a picture of Carol at an anti-war rally, with blood running down her forehead. The letter tells him that she misses him, but they are two trains that passed each other going different directions. Peter weeps silently for his lost love.

This story, written a first person narrative told 30 years after the events, hints that bad things are in store for Carol and Carol has a few bad deeds of her own in store for others.

This story was an incredibly moving tale. I normally feel my gorge rise when I hear a graying ponytail wax nostalgic about the 60s. However, this story made me nostalgic for an era I can’t even remember.

King does not wax nostalgic about the 60s or the anti-war movement. The story is driven by Peter’s academic desperation and his obsession with Hearts. The peace symbol and anti-war protests are events that influence the characters and the story. But the story blissfully, does not revolve around the anti-war movement.

King questions different elements of the anti-war movement in his tale. Jones is not grateful, but angry, for his dorm mates defending him by saying they also displayed the peace symbol. Jones says they STOLE it from him. This is an allegory for what weakened the peace movement. It was not organized and no one was in charge. Certain leaders claimed “peace” and the symbol that went with it, but none established primacy or leadership. Many peace groups were rivals and there was much infighting over who would lead the movement and speak for the movement. We see something similar happening in today’s quasi-populist uprising known as “The Tea Party.”

He also questions the actions carried out in the name of peace. We know that Carol will become so radicalized that she participates in a bombing that kills chemistry students. Similar events were perpetrated by the Weathermen Underground, an anti-war movement whose goal was to stop the war by toppling the current political power structure.

King saves himself by not injecting his politics into the story. Stephen King is an on the record, honest to gosh, unrepentant liberal. On occasion, his politics have found their way into his fictional writing, always to the detriment of the story. Here, telling a story against a backdrop of political and social divisiveness, King dismisses politics entirely from his narrative. For that, we should be grateful. Politics would have only ruined this story.

There is no supernatural element to this story. It is purely mainstream fiction. Like most of King’s mainstream works, it ranks among his best.

Blind Willie

Bill Shearman, Vietnam veteran and the man who was once a boy who held a little girl in a little park in a little Bridgeport suburb so a big boy could beat her, lives a triple life. Every day, he departs his home as Bill Shearman, operator of a one man land speculation business. He arrives at that office, which is a dummy company. He drops off his business accoutrements, then goes to another office – that of a heating and cooling company. There, he changes into an HVAC tech named Willie Sherman. He takes with him a case that contains a third set of clothing and some other items to a Manhattan Hotel where, in a public bathroom, he changes into Blind Willie, homeless Vietnam veteran. He then goes about his day begging.

His take is lucrative and he does it to support himself. He also does it as an act of penance for what he did to that little girl in Bridgeport and for stealing Bobby Garfield’s baseball glove with the Alvin Dark autograph.

Shearman served as an officer in Vietnam and he served with none other than his childhood nemesis, Sully John. When John is hit by enemy fire, it is Bill Shearman who rescues him.

Shearman has also followed through newsclips, the life of Vietnam radical and federal fugitive, Carol Gerber.

Blind Willie’s day ends when his sight starts to return. He runs his wardrobe marathon in reverse and takes the train home each day to his loving wife.

Willie Shearman lives a triple life, a mental legacy of a playground fight and a tour of duty in Vietnam. He is not a happy man, but he feels good about the penance he is paying by living out the life of a beggar.

Why We’re in Vietnam
John Sullivan, Vietnam veteran and successful Chevrolet dealer, goes to the funeral of a man with whom he served in Vietnam. There, he finds his old, “new lieutenant” who took over when the unit's first lieutenant was killed in a fire fight. They talk about the events that unfolded around them there and the effect they have on them today.

Sully John is haunted by the ghost of a young Vietnamese mother who was slaughtered by a member of his unit. Her visage appears to him from time to time, never speaking never acting. Sully John lives with a horrific memory of his unit invading a village and members of his unit bent upon killing whatever was there. A private named Malefant, who had flunked out of the University of Maine because of his obsession with Hearts, gets the killing underway when he stabs this unarmed woman repeatedly with a bayonet. The lieutenant approves the execution of one of the men bent on killing. The death under friendly fire sobers everybody up. Another My Lai is avoided.

Sully John and the lieutenant discuss the war’s effect on their generation and how things might have been different. Sully John leaves the discussion that his generation was among the most selfish in history and missed an opportunity lying before them to make deep, meaningful changes in American society.

On his way home from the funeral, Sully John gets stuck in traffic. As he waits at a standstill, the mama san appears in his car. Suddenly, furniture and home appliances begin to fall from the air. Sully John and other people flee from the scene and are crushed by refrigerators, couches, and curio cabinets. Mama san utters her only words she has ever spoken as she beckons John to her. He goes. As he approaches her, a leather baseball glove falls to the ground. He sees the Alvin Dark autograph and the name inscribed on the thumb.

The story ends as the lieutenant sits at his kitchen table, reading a newspaper article about how his war buddy died of a heart attack while stuck in traffic.

The story draws its title from a novel of the Vietnam era by Norman Mailer.

Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling

Bobby Sullivan returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood buddy. After the funeral, he makes the rounds of the old neighborhood, including his old house and the park where he, Carol, and Sully John had played as kids. He has brought with him a radio and a package. He tunes in the radio to an oldies station and opens the package. It contains an Alvin Dark autograph ball glove.

As Bobby sits and listens to the radio, a woman approaches him. He immediately recognizes Carol, his first love. She says she’s not Carol. Her name is Denise Schoonover. She, too, was there to see their old friend into the ground.

He, bald, she gray, sit and discuss their lives 30 years before and the course their lives took. Carol says her former life is dead to her. She was seduced by a man who seduced young people and made them do horrible things. She has put that past behind her. She has moved on.

Bobby has moved on from a life of crime to something more respectable, working as a carpenter. He has a wife and kids and a home. The book ends with them looking at the package that had arrived for Bobby through Sully John’s estate. It contained the glove, which Carol knew Willie Shearman had stolen because she’d seen him using it later. Stuffed in the glove was the title page of Lord of the Flies which is one of the books Bobby was turned on to by Ted Brautigan. Inscribed on that page was a heart with an arrow through it, a plus sign, a peace symbol, and equal sign followed by the word information – an inside reminder to Carol of the love she lost at the University of Maine. Bobby is convinced Ted mailed the package to bring him home and together one last time, their broken ka-tet brought full circle.

Hearts In Atlantis is one of Stephen King’s more critically acclaimed novels. Perhaps critics missed the genre references in the opening story. But they are correct to herald it. I was moved by the story and its characters.

As I stated earlier, I can’t stand to listen to hippies wax nostalgic about the 60s. I’ve read enough and studied enough and examined the decade without romantic attachment. I’m much happier to have grown up in the 1980s and Reagan’s America.

However, King does not romanticize. Each of his characters emerges from the decade broken somehow. King is perhaps too hard on his generation when, as the novel winds down, he criticizes them for trading peace and love for junk bonds and cocaine. As much as I used to enjoy occasionally baiting my late mother into an argument about how her generation was the most spoiled in history, the Baby Boomers deserve credit for bringing about positive cultural, political, and social change.

After they were done throwing a fit over Vietnam, it was those same Boomers who threw a fit over Watergate and Richard Nixon. While I am a Nixon admirer for his intellect and political instincts, I have to concede that Watergate and Nixon being forced from office cleaned up politics. It may not seem so to the casual viewer, but politics and government is cleaner today because of Watergate.

They also made it ok to be opposed to war. I have supported every military venture this nation has entered into since the end of the Vietnam War, but I shudder to think what our nation would be like were it not for pacifists and the anti war movement that comes to the fore with every military engagement. While we should, as a nation, not always heed their advice, we should listen to them, for often, they are the conscience of a nation prone to working itself into nationalistic frenzy when attacked or antagonized by another nation.

King is right to not spare his generation’s most radical members in his story. The Weathermen Underground is one of the most despicable groups ever to form in the United States – and it is clearly the Weathermen Underground that King has in mind when he recounts Carol’s life journey. Perhaps their was a touch of the Symbionese Liberation Army in there, too. But as much as the sixties were about peace and love on the home front, there was as much disorder and harm created by the movement.

Certainly, we can interpret the demise of John Sullivan as the death of the Age of Aquarius as he is bombarded with household furnishings and other possessions that the Baby Boomers sought to acquire as they grew up and abandoned their ideals.

As much as Ray Bradbury chronicled pre-depression America with his tales of Greentown, IL, Stephen King is a chronicler of his generation with books such as this and It which masks a tale of growing up American in the 1950s with a horror story. Bradbury broke the barrier that has held back three generations of genre fiction writers from being recognized as “serious” writers with something important to contribute to literature. Perhaps King will one day get his due. With this novel, he certainly earned it.

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