Have you read this book?
In the bottom corner of the cover it states: “NEW FICTION,” so what is this book then– a collection of five connected stories or a (somewhat) experimental novel? Perhaps. Either way, I was left unsatisfied with this work of fiction. Why? Well, here’s what happens…
The book begins in 1960 and each new story jumps ahead a number of years, to 1966, 1983, and finally ending in 1999. With each new story, the setting changes and the focus switches on one of the characters from the very first story. That is, for example, in the first story “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” the focus is on Bobby Garfield, a 12-year-old boy growing up in a poor neighborhood with his friends Carol and Sully. Then in the title story, which jumps ahead to 1966, the focus changes to Peter Riley as a college freshman, who ends up seeing Carol. So, while the book is told chronologically, often there are loose ends as the book jumps ahead, and the story finishes just when things are getting interesting.
This loss is the most evident in the first story. In many ways–while I appreciated King doing something a little different with his structure for a change–I would have been more satisfied had he carried through with the first story and written a whole novel. For two reasons: First of all, arguably the most interesting element in “Low Men in Yellow Coats” (and in the whole book for that matter), is it’s link with The Dark Tower series. How? Why? (Well you’ll have to read it to find out.) Unfortunately, the link is established later in the story, and before much is revealed, the story ends. And again, arguably, King’s most interesting and satisfying work in the last 10-15 years has been with The Dark Tower series. The point being– without this link, the story is a little dull and banal at times.
Nowhere is this mediocrity more evident though than in the title story, where a dorm full of college freshmen get hooked on playing “Hearts” to the point where they are failing classes, have to drop out and so on. Much of the story centers on the games played, sometimes with a blow by blow description of the rounds. As it is 1966, there is the beginning of the protest era, however this is largely left as a subplot, and rather the focus remains on the various characters at the tables. Since “Hearts” takes up roughly 30% of the book, there is a lot of boredom to be had. Too much.
In the third story, “Blind Willie,” a bully from the Bobby Garfield days earns a lucrative living by transforming into a blind Vietnam vet and receiving handouts on an upscale city street. His story is intriguing, and stands well on its own, but it too ends just when things could really get going. In “Why We’re in Vietnam” the story returns to Bobby’s childhood friend, Sully, who is haunted by an old “mamasan” from his days of serving in Vietnam. Both of these stories get deep inside the vets’ minds. So how well does King deal with the issues that concern America’s involvement in Vietnam in that era? Maybe ask a vet who served there, but for me, while nothing rang false, he also didn’t reveal anything new.
In the denouement, “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling,” Bobby returns to his hometown for a couple of revelations, which ties up the book, but also begs a couple of questions.
So, in the end, I was intrigued at times but also unsatisfied. As usual, the prose itself is well written, and the approach was somewhat different. But I wanted something more… something more unique… and a greater expansion on The Dark Tower links. King could have done worse, but I also think he could have done better. A lot better.