From the 1960′s to 1999, America, and the world, changed in ways that are hard to fathom, even if you lived through that period in history. Wars and fashion, school and sports and friendships drive this novel as we follow King’s five intertwining stories that make up this volume.
It’s not your usual Stephen King horror novel (if any of them can be called “usual”), and it’s not your usual history based story. The only consequence of this, however, is that if you’re already a Stephen King fan, you’ll love it, and if you’re not already a Stephen King fan, you’ll be one after you’ve finished this one.
The story starts out with a tale of Bobby Garfield, his new friend Ted Brautigan, and Bobby’s troubled mother. Bobby discovers that adults sometimes aren’t rescuers, but may need rescue themselves, or may even be at the root of evil itself. When that evil comes to visit in his own neighborhood, Bobby faces it, but doesn’t necessarily conquer it. Lost innocence, war, love and the struggles of conscience that we all face from time to time is the underlying theme of the whole novel.
The book goes on with the tale named “Hearts in Atlantis,” where Pete Riley tells the story of college life, card game obsessions and the looming threat of being drafted to Vietnam. Carol Gerber, Bobby’s childhood girlfriend from the first part of the book, is also there, having left Connecticut to find meaning in war protests.
In the three final stories, we follow “Blind Willie,” a minor character in “Low Men in Yellow Coats” who is paying for his Vietnam misdeeds, Sully John, Bobby’s best friend, goes to a funeral in “Why We’re in Vietnam,” and Bobby returns at last to his home town in the last story — “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling” — to make peace with his past, pay his respects to one departed friend and see for himself the fate of another.
William Hurt reads this novel alongside Stephen King himself, and they are both very competent. I’ve said before, when reviewing Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, that the writer is often the best narrator, but that isn’t always so. While Stephen King does a good job in this one, and it is clear that he knows how to present the text in the way he wants it to be heard, his pairing with William Hurt isn’t ideal. Their style and feel of the text and the characters are far from each other, and it means the gap between their narration widens, and it takes a while to get used to the new narrator when they switch.
William Hurt has a style of his own — some say he sounds like a disinterested college kid who has been smoking some of the old whacky tobacky before reading, while others can’t praise him enough. I’m more in the second category than the first, but I can see what those thinking he sounds disinterested and removed mean.
I think, however, that Hurt has done a fabulous job in narrating a tough text, with nuances that aren’t all that usual in King’s books. Hearts in Atlantis is moody and slow, on many occasions, dealing with issues that can’t be raced through, and full of points that are hard to convey without making the narration equally moody and, at times, difficult.
Stephen King is good at separating and sticking to the characters and their subtleties — perhaps easier for him since he thought them up (or uncovered them) in the first place, but William Hurt does the same thing with his portion of the text, helping Bobby and Ted, Carol and Sully John and the others come alive from the words that made them up with ease. He takes the same care in keeping their individual traits as King does, and puts his own twist on them at the same time.
The climax of this book comes in the fourth story, not the fifth and last, but that doesn’t take away any of the thrill. King leads us on a journey that is unexpected coming from him, and he lets us float down again gently, but with a great deal of sorrow at the end, partly because of the story itself, and partly because it is over. Every reader is bound to be left with questions about what might happen next, and while some will cherish this, some will find it hard to let go of the story because of it.
Either way, get this on tape. It’s even better than paper.