Sto­ry­teller rev­els in the un­ex­pected

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Michael By­wa­ter

Mr Mercedes By Stephen King Ha­chette Aus­tralia, 405pp, $32.99 STEPHEN King’s lat­est novel, Mr Mercedes, is ded­i­cated to James M. Cain and de­scribed as ‘‘a riv­et­ing sus­pense thriller’’ — a phrase so closely ap­proach­ing 100 per cent se­man­tic re­dun­dancy (a non-riv­et­ing thriller? A thriller en­tirely free of sus­pense?) that it tells us pre­cisely noth­ing. All it does is de­clare that the reader will keep turn­ing the pages. Which we will. That’s what King makes us do.

Ex­cept Mr Mercedes isn’t, on the sur­face, a thriller; and you can bet the con­sen­sus will be that King is writ­ing what will be called ‘‘off­piste’’. It’s a slen­der book, by his stan­dards — only 400 pages. There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly weird. No su­per­nat­u­ral hor­rors; no re­an­i­mated corpses, things in drains, Greek fates ma­te­ri­al­is­ing in lab coats. Mr Mercedes is — on that same sur­face — a tec-plus-chase story.

There’s a mad — prop­erly; any­one with his back­story would be mad — killer who ploughs a stolen Mercedes mur­der­ously into a crowd of poor folk queu­ing up at dawn for a cyn­i­cal jobs-for-all bull­shit ex­er­cise. Then he hunts the owner of the stolen Merc to sui­cide. And then it gets worse.

The side of good is led by Ker­mit Hodges, a re­tired de­tec­tive, now sit­ting in front of the tele­vi­sion, toy­ing with the idea of eat­ing his gun. There’s a cur­va­ceous blonde who falls in ten­der erotic love with Hodges. There’s a black kid, Har­vard­bound, sharp as a tack, whose whole fam­ily has white-folk names ex­cept for the dog, Odell.

And ev­ery­thing is known. Not that far into the book, we know who­dunit, we know wotidunn, we know why, we know ev­ery­one’s back­ground and what’s com­ing next. Ex­cept, of course, we don’t, be­cause King shares a skill and a sleight-of-pen with JS Bach him­self. In both cases we know to ex­pect the un­ex­pected; but when the un­ex­pected hap­pens, it’s not the un­ex­pected we were ex­pect­ing.

King gets lit­tle crit­i­cal at­ten­tion. The prob­lem is he falls be­tween two schools. He’s too pop­u­lar for se­ri­ous crit­ics but he’s also too pop­u­lar to ig­nore. So what he does goes largely un­re­marked. He is a gothic writer, tak­ing our dark­est fears and ex­ag­ger­at­ing them un­til they al­most im­plode un­der the pres­sure of their own hor­rific ab­sur­dity. No­body can do it quite like King. But he’s a man of his age — which is a vis­ual one — and his weak­ness is his sin­gle point of view. That’s es­sen­tial for the cam­era, but dis­places the great strength of the novel: its abil­ity to han­dle mul­ti­ple points of view with grace­ful com­plex­ity.

So King isn’t re­ally a nov­el­ist. He’s a sto­ry­teller: one you’d have lis­tened to for hours, as the sun set and the gulls cried on the dock­side at Pi­raeus. His is the churn and flow of words of a man not writ­ing but speak­ing to his au­di­ence, watch­ing them and hold­ing them. He is a great per­former, a rhap­sode in the an­cient mould; but as a nov­el­ist, he never quite be­comes in­vis­i­ble. We lis­ten to — read — him not to know what hap­pens next, but to know what he does next. It’s al­ways him. And it was prob­a­bly just the same with Homer.

June 28-29, 2014

Stephen King

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.