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Stephen King's Equilibrium Spot

By Caroline | Books | June 21, 2010 |

By Caroline | Books | June 21, 2010 |

I love Stephen King.

While reading about him on Wikipedia just now, I came across this wonderful little tidbit about “critic S.T. Joshi” (never heard of him):

Joshi cites two early non-supernatural novels—Rage (1977) and The Running Man (1982)—as King’s best, suggesting both are riveting and well-constructed suspense thrillers, with believable characters.

Rage is one of my favorite books, absolutely beloved to me and influential in my adolescence. The same collection also includes The Long Walk, another hands-down favorite. By a quick count, I’ve read 31 of King’s books, most of them during quiet summer-vacation days in the public library. Some I’ve read a second time, and some I’ve read repeatedly because I love them. King may be the contemporary male author with whom I feel the strongest connection and loyalty, beating out the likes of Neil Gaiman or Pat Conroy.

I picked up The Green Mile in one volume at a booksale, part of an entire totebag full for $20 or something. Picking it up after my long slog through A Thousand Acres and King Lear, I felt the fresh air of King’s prose sweeping the dust out of my head and found The Green Mile to be one of his best books.

King adheres to a continuum of the supernatural that really cuts a broad swath, from almost no supernatural activity to so much it chokes the story. The Green Mile finds King’s equilibrium spot, which I think of as magical realism: He takes grounded, interesting characters and sics the bright lights on a small supernatural quality. That quality enhances the story but doesn’t explain the whole thing. It’s an assist.

In this book, the real story is the Depression and these decent, hardworking Death Row prison guards. They make compromises in order to avoid drawing attention from their bosses, and they acknowledge how the tough economic times make those compromises more palatable. The death penalty itself is also called into question, presented in contrast to a remarkable inmate with hidden talents of restoring life, health, and vigor.

It is religious, kind of, but at the same time not — life is stolen back from the jaws of death or extinguished by the government. The too-pure healer character bucks expectations near the end of the book with a revengeful surprise, while his watchers show their better natures more and more. They all oscillate toward a good, everyday decency we’d be lucky to experience as a society.

I liked the first-person narration by the head guard, Paul; he tells the story from his nursing-home room in a galaxy far, far away, including details about his new life as an old man. He repeatedly touches on themes of mercy and compassion, but never in, you know, a Nicholas Sparks-y way — there’s no couple in love clutching unto death here, nothing so cut and dried. And from the beginning you know that Paul has complex feelings about the path his life took after his stint as a guard on Death Row, the unanswered question of whether or not he was glad to learn what he learned.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Caroline’s reviews, check out her blog, Of Golden Age.

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