Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review — "Finders Keepers" by Stephen King

Mild spoilers below

Last year, when I wrote about Stephen King's "Revival," I expressed my cautiously optimistic hope that King was maybe finally pulling out of what felt to me like a decade-plus slump. The quality of his work has been trending sharply upward since 2010's "Full Dark No Stars," and I voiced the opinion that "Revival" was as close to classic King as anything he had produced in a long, long time. 

I'm going to be a douchebag and quote myself real quick:

"I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about a 'comeback or (ahem) a revival here. We'll have to see if King can sustain this newfound focus with whatever he comes up with next. But, in the meantime, I'm just so grateful to have once again had the exhilarating experience with a new King book that I used to expect as a matter of course."

I've read "Revival" again in the months since this review, and for me it's skating ever closer to earning that classic label. I'm still not quite ready to go there, though.

But I have no such reservations with his latest book, "Finders Keepers." The exhilaration I felt when I read "Revival" is there, but positively squared this time. This is King's best novel — by a wide, wide margin — since his early/middle period ended with 1987's "Misery."

He's had a couple books that have come sort of close in the years since. 1996's "Desperation" comes to mind, as does his fourth Dark Tower novel, 1997's "Wizard and Glass." I personally have a deep fondness for 2003's "From a Buick 8," even if nobody else really does. But nothing (except for "Revival," "Full Dark..." and maybe "11/22/63") has felt like a truly towering achievement since "Misery."

Until now.

"Finders Keepers" is second in a trilogy of crime novels, directly influenced by writers like John D. McDonald (an oft-referenced King favorite). "Mr. Mercedes" was the first in the series but, like with "Star Wars" and "The Godfather: Part 2," it's really the second installment that's the defining masterpiece.

"Mr. Mercedes" was good, but it had its problems. The best things about it are the lead character, retired police detective Bill Hodges, and a truly frightening villain, Brady Hartsfield. The spine of the story is solid, but King wanders outside of its confines and stumbles into areas that challenge our suspension of disbelief. The biggest problems come when King has the elderly and corpulent Hodges enter with startling ease into a passionate love affair with a beautiful, much younger woman ("Revival" kind of has the same Woody Allen-esque old-man wish-fulfillment problem, but you sort of buy it more there since the main character, Jamie Morton, is a rode-hard bad-boy rocker and not a fat ex-cop who starts the book mostly sitting around eating Cheetohs and watching game shows).  These issues only compound when Hodges joins forces with two other would-be detectives — Holly, a middle-aged woman with Aspergers, and Jerome, Hodges's genius teenage neighbor — to stop Brady in his murderous tracks. Jerome and Holly are, like Hodges, pretty great characters on their own, but you just don't quite believe the meet-cute way they all come together.

The third major problem with "Mr. Mercedes" is its overall lackluster conclusion. King had dipped his toes into the hard-boiled world before (most masterfully with his 1985 short story "Dolan's Cadillac," which you can find anthologized in his 1993 short-story collection "Nightmares and Dreamscapes"), but never at novel-length. He's working undeveloped muscles with "Mr. Mercedes," and you can sort of feel him straining toward the end. None of these problems are fatal, but — Edgar award notwithstanding — they knock the book down a peg from "great" to merely "pretty good."

You feel none of that strain in "Finders Keepers" (well, maybe a little when Jerome conveniently shows up again to help out about halfway through). This story takes place four years later, and Hodges and Holly are a team now. Even if their original coming together strained credibility, here King has the advantage of picking up with them after their friendly if not always comfortable rapport has been firmly established.

But fundamentally "Finders Keepers" isn't even really about them. Hodges and Holly don't really join the main action until about halfway through, and they spend most of the rest of the book playing catch-up. The real main characters are a kid named Pete Saubers and a hardened old parolee named Morris Bellamy.

Bellamy is King's most compelling human monster since Annie Wilkes in "Misery." And that might be because, like Annie, Bellamy is an obsessed fan who turns against a famous author. I'm sure that's a subject that hits King right in all the feels.

The author in question is a reclusive genius named John Rothstein. After publishing a trilogy of novels about the life of a wayward youth named Jimmy Gold, Rothstein packs it in and retires to a New Hampshire farmhouse, never to be heard from again. But rumors abound; word on the street is that he never stopped writing.

Rothstein is an obvious riff on J.D. Salinger, but there's also some John Updike and Philip Roth in there. His "Runner" trilogy (comprised of "The Runner," "The Runner Sees Action" and "The Runner Slows Down") seems like a nod to Updike's "Rabbit" novels. And while Rothstein's Jimmy Gold character has a lot of Holden Caulfield in him — he's even got his own catch phrase, "shit don't mean shit" — he's also a clear analogue to Roth's Nathan Zuckerman alter-ego.

"Finders Keepers" opens with an 80-year-old Rothstein being rudely awakened by a trio of home invaders. The year is 1978, and Rothstein hasn't published anything in nearly two decades. Two of the masked men are clearly after Rothstein's money, but the third — Bellamy — wants something else. Bellamy is the criminal-minded estranged son of a respected English professor, and he sees himself as something of a literary sophisticate. In particular, he's imprinted himself deeply onto Jimmy Gold, in the way Mark David Chapman imprinted onto Caulfield and — indeed — Annie Wilkes imprinted onto Misery Chastain.

Bellamy is enraged by where Rothstein left Jimmy — a middle-aged man with a paunch, who has given up his anti-social and existential rebellion for a wife, a kid, a house in the suburbs, and a job in advertising. To Bellamy's distorted world view, not only did Jimmy sell out, but Rothstein made him sell out. To Bellamy, Jimmy is more real than any living breathing human, including the man who created him. Rothstein barely rates as a person and, to Bellamy, he must be punished.

So Bellamy kills him, much to the shock and dismay of his accomplices (this isn't a spoiler, by the way; it happens in the first chapter and the info is on the dust jacket). The gang runs off with $20,000 in cash and over a hundred hand-written notebooks taken from Rothstein's safe. Bellamy hopes and prays that Rothstein redeemed his beloved Jimmy somewhere in those notebooks, and a quick glance suggests to him that this might in fact be the case.

But before Bellamy can read the notebooks, he runs to his hometown in northern Ohio — the same unnamed city where "Mr. Mercedes" took place — and has an unpleasant encounter with an old friend, a wannabe book dealer named Andy Halliday. Halliday was the one who first proposed robbing Rothstein, but now that the deed is done he wants no part of the scheme and leaves Bellamy to fend for himself. In a rage, Bellamy hides the notebooks in a trunk and then finds himself locked up for more than three decades for a completely unrelated crime committed while he was blackout drunk.

Bellamy's narrative interweaves with that of Pete's, whose dad was one of the victims of Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer. Tom Saubers was a good husband and father, but now gravely injured and jobless during the Great Recession he's turning into a bitter, mean drunk. Reduced to a single income and choking on hospital bills, the Saubers family is coming apart.

It's in this moment of desperation that thirteen-year-old Pete stumbles on a strange trunk buried in the woods behind his house. Inside, he finds $20,000 in cash and stacks of lovingly preserved notebooks.

Pete uses the money to surreptitiously help his family. He also reads the notebooks and becomes as obsessed with John Rothstein and Jimmy Gold as Bellamy. But when the money runs out a couple years later, Pete decides to approach a shady book dealer with designs on selling the notebooks for a hefty profit. The book dealer just happens to be Andy Halliday.

You can probably sort of guess where the story is going from here, particularly after Bellamy is granted an unexpected parole. He's as obsessed with finding out what happened to Jimmy Gold as he was in 1978, and he wants his notebooks back.

To say much more would risk giving too much away. By the time Hodges, Holly and Jerome are brought into the story (Pete's little sister just happens to be BFFs with Jerome's sister Barbara), things are well on their way to a disastrous collision.

"Finders Keepers" is a remarkably assured crime/suspense novel from a guy who is admittedly more comfortable with the narrative conveniences of supernatural horror. But he's been working out since "Mr. Mercedes," and it shows. As I said in my earlier review, "Revival" was, for me, King's scariest book in broader, cosmic sense since "Pet Sematary." That's still the case. But "Finders Keepers" is his most sharply suspenseful in that grubbily human, tightening-of-the-screws way since at least "Misery"... possibly even "Cujo." It's the sort of book where you find yourself yelling at characters not to go into that room, answer that phone, or open this door. When one character makes a choice of almost jaw-dropping stupidity, I literally screamed in horror.

Beyond being a solid suspense yarn, "Finders Keepers" is also a pretty compelling rumination on the writer's relationship to his/her fans and the fans' relationship to the writer's characters. As fascinating a villain as Annie Wilkes is, "Misery" keeps us locked within writer Paul Sheldon's subjectivity and Annie herself remains pretty opaque. Here, King lets us go inside both Bellamy's diseased mind and Pete's marginally saner one. King shows that he understands the fan's perspective, and he asks some real questions about who has the ultimate right the characters, the writer or the reader. As another George R.R. Martin fan steadily working myself into a rage over the long-delayed release of "The Winds of Winter," it's a question I wrestle with every time some asshole posts a "Game of Thrones" spoiler on Facebook.

King's only real misstep here is in his characterization of Andy Halliday. Halliday is fat, pretentious, slimy, mincing, and gay, and he feels like an uncomfortable callback to the sort of "sissy" characters Hollywood used to feed us in movies like "The Maltese Falcon" and "Laura." If he'd been a character in an old movie, he would have undoubtedly been played by Peter Lorre. Andy's sexuality isn't a major part of the story and it's mostly used to show Bellamy's intense, prison-bred homophobia. But it's unnecessary and annoying and a reminder that, as progressive as he is, King is of a different (and slightly clueless) generation.

That dissonant note aside, "Finders Keepers" cracks right along and moves steadily toward a conclusion that, unlike the one he gave us in "Mr. Mercedes," feels like the perfect explosive culmination of what had come before. Interestingly, in setting up the third volume of the trilogy ("End of Watch," coming some time next year), he threads in hints of his familiar supernatural horror. I have mixed feelings about that — this trilogy so clearly takes place in a different universe from the rest of his work (a point made by a reference to the "Shawshank Redemption" soundtrack, which Holly professes to be among her favorites but more importantly firmly establishes King's other output as a work of fiction in this trilogy's world). I'd kind of like him to stick to the hard-boiled approach in the last book.

But what he's hinting at promises to be... well, pretty fucking awesome. I've got my fingers crossed.

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