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.