Drunken Fireworks by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Drunken Fireworks is a flamboyant, but underwhelming, entry in the Stephen King oeuvre. The title says it all: this is a short story about a "Fourth of July Arms Race," told from the perspective of a chronically inebriated alcoholic with a competitive streak. The writing is conversational and free-flowing, with plenty of amusing one-liner quips; however, there isn't much "meat" to the story beyond that. Besides the rambling protagonist (a drunken nouveau riche man named Alden McCausland), the characters are mostly one-dimensional - though a Native American fireworks dealer does provide some commentary on racism, reminding the narrator that "we're all Americans," regardless of racial or ethnic background. Nearly every other character in the story is a cardboard cutout of a figure: flammable, disposable, and forgettable.
While I appreciated the enthusiastic audiobook performance of Tim Sample, his thick New England accent (amplified by the protagonist's slurred intoxication) is insufferable and nearly indecipherable at times. I almost always enjoy Stephen King's attempts at non-supernatural storytelling, but I'm disappointed in this piece. In this case, King is more concerned with style over substance. Perhaps fewer substances (get it?) would make this a more appealing work.
Though I love Stephen King, this is one of the less-impressive entries I've read from him. Alas, Drunken Fireworks does not have much to offer its audience beyond a quick, combustible flash in the sky.
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Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I read Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven a few years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with the author's thoughtful, insightful twist on science-fiction. Here, at last, was an author who married literary aspirations with the tried-and-true tropes of Sci-Fi, validating a genre that is all too frequently dismissed by critics and "serious" readers. In a rare circumstance, the book actually improves upon its archetypal ancestor, Stephen King's The Stand . Despite some of that novel's imperfections (like the mathematical/scientific implausibility of a virus that simultaneously spreads across the globe while killing its hosts within just a day or two), Station Eleven artfully captures the timeless elements of trauma, grief, loss, and growing up. It's nothing short of a modern masterpiece.
With Sea of Tranquility, Emily St. John Mandel returns to the Sci-Fi landscape in which she found fame, and once again incorporates elements of global pandemics (multiple pandemics, in fact). In four intricately intertwined narratives, Mandel delivers a unique cast of characters: a British expatriate in 1912, a grieving woman in pre-pandemic 2020, a novelist on a book tour in 2203, and a time traveler in 2401. These four disparate threads are more intimately stitched together than one might assume, with an inexplicable time/reality "glitch" uniting the figures across the centuries. Without revealing too much, I will happily report that Mandel delivers the goods in the novel's final act, saving the best twists and turns for the last portion of the book. Unlike, say, Jodi Picoult, Mandel leaves a feast of breadcrumbs for her readers. Whenever there's a plot twist, you can be sure that the author has "done the work" to provide clues for the audience - whether it's subtle details like eye colors and music, or larger passages that repeat important observations and characteristics. It is during the last portion of the novel that Mandel weaves together all her disparate threads - and proves she is a modern master of science-fiction, a worthy heir to Margaret Atwood.
Mandel incorporates some clever "meta" moments in Sea of Tranquility: the story's 23rd-century novelist, Olive Llewellyn, is touring in support of a science-fiction novel about a global pandemic... not unlike Mandel's own experiences as the writer of Station Eleven. During interviews with journalists and lecture hall Q&A sessions, Mandel pokes fun at some of the nuanced criticisms of Station Eleven: How many books did the author sell during the pandemic? Is the death of the novel's antagonist too anticlimactic? Does the author feel validated or vindicated knowing that they wrote a book about a fictional global pandemic shortly before the outbreak of a real global pandemic? There are moments of humor and heartbreak in equal measure, as Mandel uses the avatar of Olive to explore some of her own real-life experiences. Although it's dangerous to assume that writers use autobiographical elements in their novels, I'm always fascinated by the overlapping Venn diagram circles of fiction and non-fiction; I love it when an author's personal experiences are imbued and embedded within their creations. Though it's a precarious wire to walk, the author simply jumps and jetés on that tightrope in Sea of Tranquility. Such acrobatic feats are remarkable from any writer, let alone one as adventurous as Mandel.
Though Sea of Tranquility is quite possibly brilliant, it's not entirely flawless in its execution. The opening chapters, featuring Edwin St. Andrew, feel tedious and almost deterred me from continuing the book; as someone who finds that era of history foreign and uninteresting, I had to struggle through Mandel's first act before I found myself invested in the story. Because of my experience reading Station Eleven, I decided to give Sea of Tranquility the benefit of the doubt - and thank goodness I didn't abandon this ship! Additionally, while Mandel does an excellent job of tidying up loose ends for Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, the fates of other characters seem maddeningly incomplete and unnecessarily truncated. It's strange to watch a writer who effortlessly crafts tidy endings for some characters leave readers unfulfilled with other storylines. While I admire ambiguity in storytelling, I also crave closure... and the two are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, the subplots involving "simulation theory," while injecting faint hints of The Matrix into the narrative, seem slightly forced and unresolved; I only hope that the author revisits these strands of her storytelling in the future. So, while I have very few complaints and criticisms about Sea of Tranquility, they're reminders that Mandel still has a little room for growth as a writer.
Despite these imperfections, Sea of Tranquility is still a thrilling read - one that will appeal to fans of literary fiction and Sci-Fi. While pandemic plagues and time travel have been addressed in media countless times before (there are echoes of 12 Monkeys throughout the novel), Mandel imbues her novel with a sense of humanity and organic authenticity that often escapes the attempts of middling science fiction writers. One of Sea of Tranquility's key lines, “A life lived in a simulation is still a life," is an excellent reminder that Mandel is ultimately most concerned with life, not the trappings of outer space or the failings of a far-off future. Because of this, Mandel capably offers a prayer for the present, a reflection of our own worlds through the filtered lens of fantasy. In the end, Sea of Tranquility masterfully captures the essence of the human spirit - an accomplishment which is even more impressive considering its fanciful imagining of the future and its insightful examination of the past.
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The Gunslinger by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stephen King might be the most prolific author of his generation, with more than sixty books under his belt - several of them hulking behemoths. And, while there are *many* contenders for the title of "best" in his oeuvre, the Dark Tower series seems to have amassed a small army of readers who believe that this is King's masterpiece. So, with the announcement that Mike Flanagan would be tackling a Dark Tower adaptation for Amazon, I figured that it was time for me to enter the world of Gilead, pick up The Gunslinger , and give the series a shot - no pun intended.
In this novel, we're introduced to the rugged Roland Deschain, the last of a dying breed of gun-slinging pseudo-knights. Roland travels the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Gilead (not to be confused with Margaret Atwood's dystopian country of the same name in The Handmaid's Tale ), hot on the trail of the enigmatic Man in Black. Along the way, our protagonist encounters magic, militias, mutants, and a mysterious child who only recently crossed into Gilead from his home in contemporary New York City. Is Gilead in the far-off future? Is it an alternate dimension with tethers to our own universe? Or is it something else entirely? Like Roland, the reader gets some answers during the penultimate chapters of the novel - but there are many, many more mysteries left to solve. It's no surprise, then, that King needed seven more books to complete this epic story.
The end result? A hybrid western/sci-fi/horror/adventure novel that references everything from the Bible to the Beatles. It's an ambitious gambit, but it's one that doesn't always hit the mark. Alas, in The Gunslinger, King is less of a sharpshooter than a middling marksman.
Although this novel is not King's magnum opus, it's still a fascinating story with boundless creativity hidden in its pages. Though I can't in good conscience sing the praises of The Gunslinger, I still applaud King's ambitious attempt to fuse a variety of genres: we see echoes of dime-store pulp novels filtered through the lens of Friday night juke joints, Saturday afternoon monster-movie matinees, and Sunday morning church services. King simply refuses to remain chained to the restrictions of classification, and he clearly delights in subverting audience expectations. For better or worse, King's confidence and ambition are forces to be reckoned with.
Periodically, King's wordplay takes centerstage and reminds the reader that his talents stretch far beyond the realms of the macabre into masterful craft. Take, for instance, King's description of a "big bang" occurrence: " 'Land,' the man in black invited, and there it was; it heaved itself out of the water in endless, galvanic convulsions. It was red, arid, cracked and glazed with sterility. Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent's baseball head... Continents took shape before his amazed eyes, and were obscured with clocksprings of clouds. The world's atmosphere held it in a placental sac. And the sun, rising beyond the earth's shoulder--" (216). Such stream-of-consciousness description is simply good writing, regardless of genre. In my own subversive way, I would love to throw this passage at an AP English class and simply enjoy the ensuing discussion. I guess that King isn't the only person in this world who likes to subvert expectations.
As I was reading The Gunslinger, it was hard for me to not draw comparisons with Cormac McCarthy's "weird western," Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West . McCarthy's novel is another dark epic that flirts with the supernatural and marries bloodshed with literary aspirations. And, while I'm undeniably "Team King" in that showdown, I have to admit that McCarthy has successfully outdrawn the King of Horror in this duel. That being said, I would love to see some cross-pollinated fan fiction that depicts Roland Deschain taking on The Judge. In that circumstance, my money would definitely be on Roland of Gilead.
With all due respect, I wholeheartedly believe that It is King's true masterpiece - a sprawling pièce de résistance that bridges the traditional Bildungsroman with horror and sci-fi tropes. In that regard, I think Pennywise the Clown could probably teach the Man in Black a few tricks. All the other King-obsessives out there might think otherwise, but Roland Deschain can't hold a candle to the Losers' Club. And I'll challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel in the sewers of Derry.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.