Herman Wouk Is Still Alive

Stephen King's latest short story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," is kind of a nasty little piece of classist vitriol.

I've made no apologies for my love of Stephen King's work. Ultimately, I think time will prove the critical appraisal of his writing to be quite positive. I love his conversational writing style, his hugely ambitious plots, and his ability to twist the trivial aspects of life into perfect little snippets of mundane horror.

I also tend to agree with many of his political views. However, in the case of this story, I just feel sorry for the man in the big house with the iron fence that he built to protect the writerly folks from the dangers of mixing with the rest of us plebes.

This tale features every paper-thin cliche and classist sketch of those without resources; it becomes tiresome. Jasmine and Brenda are broke; they have seven children among them and no positive males in their lives; there has been sexual abuse; they both drink rotgut hooch; they call the library the "li-berry"; they give their children names like Glory and Freedom and they are both outright bigots.

They want to load a rental van with their children and some booze and go stay in "The Red Roof" so they can eat takeout from "downstreet" and swim in the pool.

Road trip!

The first third of the story is painted with such wide brushstrokes that it's insulting to anyone who has ever had to struggle. Look, even when I was dirt poor and living with Jeanne over on Whitaker in South Portland, my sense of educational and cultural class distinction wasn't defined by my lack of wealth. I'd like to be charitable to King and just hope that he was trying for satire with this piece.

We then see the other side of the coin in the second vignette: ivory tower academics en route to a poetry reading in Maine. They are equally offensive character renderings., and they're stuck on a collision course with Brenda and Jasmine and the VAN OF DOOM!

The story travels well-worn King Country: aging, politics, sex, and that afore-mentioned VAN OF DOOM!

His knack for perceptively hammering the details is there (the MADE IN PARAGUAY tag on the stretch pants from K-MART, for instance), and I understand the emotion he's trying to expose. It's a story about perception and opportunity and lives of quiet desperation.

It's a story about resignation, too. And damn it, those kids don't deserve the thing that happens to them. You make your own luck, that is if your parents have the decency to give you half a chance.

Like I said, I see what he's trying to do with the tale, but it's just too danged hackneyed to drive the job home. I've got a copy of Just After Sunset on the nightstand. There are some excellent stories in that collection, and I'll look at a few of them tonight to reacquaint myself with one of the finest contemporary storytellers...


craighallam said...

I have to admit I haven't felt a love for Mr. King for a while now. Cell broke it for me. U still have full dark, No stars to read so hoping my faith will be reaffirmed.

Daniel W. Powell said...

I think you'll be pleased with Full Dark, Craig. I liked it very much. I agree with you on Cell. An excellent first third just lost traction and seemed disorganized. His efforts have been a bit uneven of late; this story is one of the slip-ups, in my view...

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