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February 12, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Books | February 12, 2008 |

And as It threw him, as he felt his mind being swatted out of his body, he concentrated all of his being on seizing Its tongue … and missed his grip.
It, Stephen King

It was inevitable that the works of Stephen King would eventually cross the line from adrenaline-fueled, engaging stories to the kinds of self-indulgent and downright irritating books that only crotchety old men can create. And this is not a new development: King’s lifetime opus, The Dark Tower, ended in 2004, but King reached his literary and emotional peak in 1999 with Hearts in Atlantis, a gorgeous book of five novellas tracing the rise and fall of the Vietnam generation. However, three things have become agonizingly clear with King’s subsequent novels: (1) He no longer has any remote idea of how anyone under 30 thinks, or speaks, or acts; (2) He will only write what he knows, and this in an increasingly cloying way; and (3) He is determined to become a character in all his books, and this is pretty obviously a bad thing.

King’s latest novel, Duma Key, is an unfortunate confluence of all three of those things, and a book so flat and dull and uninvolving and irksome and just plain lame that I wound up quitting halfway through. It’s about 600 pages, but by about 317 I was wondering whether anyone would judge me too harshly for putting the book down for good — I have been reading almost nonstop since I was a kid, and whenever I finish a book I usually start a new one within a couple days, and I try to read often. I guess what I’m saying is I have what some would call a disproportionately high distaste for quitting books, and I don’t like to do it if at all possible. (Though Marisha Pessl damn near broke me with Special Topics in Calamity Physics.) But Duma Key, after beginning with all the reluctant energy of an old man coughing in a movie theater, promptly became boring, off-putting, and falsely suspenseful. It’s this last that’s probably the most damning for King, a man who made his name on creating some of the most chilling stories in modern pop literature. Duma Key purports to be a supernatural tale, complete with ghosts and some spooky paintings, but everything about it feels recycled from better ideas King had 20 years ago.

Edgar Freemantle is a wealthy building contractor with a wife, two grown daughters, and a nice little life when a crane at one of his construction sites accidentally plows into his truck, crushing Edgar and flipping him several times over. He loses his right arm in the aftermath, and some of the brain damage he suffered now manifests itself as powerful anger when he can’t place names or faces or even remember simple vocabulary. This all happens in the first few pages of the novel, and it’s written with a knowledgeable style that betrays King’s own history with vehicular accidents. In the summer of 1999, King was struck while walking by a van careening down Route 5 in Maine, and Edgar’s hip pain is an easy mirror of King’s injury. Instead of making his hero an author, as he’s done so many times before, King is simply casting a version of himself as the lead, complete with physical therapy and a crotchety outlook. Edgar is the most well realized character in the book, and it’s because he’s nothing but a mouthpiece for King’s increasingly inane chatter about the world we live in, and boy howdy it ain’t like it used to be, and what the hell is with this TiVo, and kids sure do make you proud, and etc.

After being served with divorce papers, Edgar splits up his fortune and takes his part to Duma Key, off the west coast of Florida, where he rents a house from a rich old woman who lives down the beach. Edgar is an impossibly stupid and saccharine guy, which makes him right at home with the rest of the characters King soon forces onto the stage. The old woman is Elizabeth Eastlake, proprietor of a number of lots on the key and victim of Alzheimer’s, so she’s taken care of by Wireman, a man who lives with her and has to rank as the most annoying thing Stephen King has ever done. Wireman speaks in a mix of hippie aphorisms — “Do the day and let the day do you” — and snatches of Spanish, which it turns out is because his dead wife was Hispanic, but in reality it just makes him sound pretentious and phony and deeply worrisome. Edgar and Wireman’s first meeting is equally cringe-inducing: Edgar, who saw Elizabeth the day before on the beach wearing a large hat similar to the one Marlon Brando wore in his garden death scene in The Godfather, refers to her absently as “the bride of the godfather,” and this “joke” inexplicably strikes Wireman as so damn funny that the two men wind up falling out of their beach chairs in fits of giggly hysterics. There’s nothing quite as discomforting as two characters laughing over something unfunny that the author is unironically portraying as hilarious. But that’s King now: He doesn’t care about what is, only what he thinks should be.

In fact, the only thing worse is King’s lifeless characterization of Edgar’s college-age daughter, Ilse. It’s always a shock to take a step back and think, “Wait, this girl’s young. Younger than I am, even. Should she be talking as if she’s been lobotomized?” Ilse is a mix of golly-gee innocence and cute phrases that betray King’s inability to fashion a realistic younger character. He blew it in Cell, he spectacularly choked it in The Colorado Kid, and he does it again here with Ilse. And her naivete and patent fraudulence can’t be excused by virtue of the novel being told via Edgar’s first-person narration. It’s one thing for King to simply write a POV narrative with the protagonist seeing his daughter as any father would, but it’s another for him to fail to give that girl a meaningful weight and believable edges. She never seems the least bit real; she could, sadly, only come from a Stephen King novel.

Soon enough, Edgar turns into King Lite when he realizes he wants to paint — hey, it’s an artistic outlet — and he begins to sketch and then paint things that, though King’s descriptions are murky, sound like a mix between Dali ripoffs and freshman art student ripoffs. Edgar does sunsets mostly, though sometimes there’s an eerie ship, or a CD where the sun should be, or maybe a beach scene at low tide with tennis balls floating on the water. When Edgar paints, though, he feels something possess him, and he also feels a tingle in his nonexistent right arm, which is how he knows the paintings will be Full Of Magical Import. Sometimes he paints things that he knows to be true even though he hasn’t seen them, and sometimes he paints things that become true after he creates them. Edgar is a tortured artist, which is something King plays to the hilt: Edgar gets nothing but sympathy and support from Wireman, who, along with the local community, find Edgar’s paintings to be alluring, powerful, stunning, and somehow way more amazing than King actually described. Edgar’s local celebrity for his paintings never rings true; it’s as if King couldn’t just give Edgar this power, but wanted him to be worshipped for it, and a successful hero is never as interesting as a struggling one. It would have been an interesting turn if Edgar’s drawings and paintings had been ordinary things, competent at best, but still held the power to reflect the present or control the future. A normal thing given extraordinary power: That’s like something out of a Stephen King novel, you know? Instead, Edgar is too busy subbing in for King, whether it’s churning out questionable works of art or doing the kind of terribly awkward pop culture name-dropping King can’t seem to get enough of these days; I counted three random and cumbersome references to John D. MacDonald before I quit.

There’s more to the book — much, much more, and you’re a better person than I am if you can wade through it — but I knew halfway through it that I didn’t care. Life is too short to read disappointing books, and Duma Key definitely qualifies. King has created some genuinely good stories, and there are moments in some that are great, soaring looks at life, love, and everything else. But King has long since passed his prime, and Duma Key is a sad example of what happens when you don’t leave well enough alone. He’s writing here with only a fraction of his former fire and talent, and it’s just sad. I’ve been let down by King before, but this is the first time I’ve walked away.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

Stop. Just Stop.

Duma Key by Stephen King / Daniel Carlson

Books | February 12, 2008 |

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