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Book Review: Blaze by Richard Bachman

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An early "trunk novel" that's been pruned of its young author's overly sentimental leanings, Richard Bachman's Blaze was published 35 years after its original inception in the early seventies. Now that it's showing up on the remainder tables alongside Patricia Cornwall's ongoing attempts to erase every last slice of reader loyalty we once held for Kay Scarpetta, it's a good time to check out this very readable footnote in the Stephen King collection.

Blaze centers on a protagonist clearly modeled after Lenny from Of Mice And Men. His pal and protector is even named George, though unfortunately for Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (a.k.a. Blaze), by the time this crime-gone-bad novel opens George is already dead, knifed for being too lucky at a craps game. This leaves poor Blaze, a hulking man/child suffering brain damage from the multiple times his drunken father threw him down the stairs, to try and carry on George's big score on his lonesome. The crime concocted: the abduction of six-month-old Joe Gerard, son of a wealthy Maine family. With the hectoring ghost voice of his dead crony alternately advising and browbeating him, Blaze is able to carry out the kidnapping, even though he hasn't quite worked out how he's gonna get any ransom from it.

We know Blaze is doomed from the beginning – he can't even consistently remember that George is dead – though we can't help worrying as to whether little Joe will make it out alive. At one point in the book, for instance, Blaze leaves the infant in George's "care" while he drives into town to mail a ransom note. Stephen King’s alter ego can be a pretty merciless writer, we think. How far will he take this story?

Per King, the original manuscript of Blaze, the product of a still-very-young novelist, was drippy in the manner of Dickens at his most maudlin (the writer even quotes Oscar Wilde's notorious putdown of The Old Curiosity Shop in the book's foreword). The older, wiser author states that he wanted "to strip all the sentiment I could from the writing itself" in the book's final draft, though a few small schmaltzy moments inevitably linger.

The book intersperses its caper story with flashbacks to Blaze's growing years, so we can get a sense of how this limited human being gets to the place where he's the subject of a state-wide manhunt. It's the flashback sequences, one suspects, where young Bachman/King most likely hit overdrive, since some corniness still survives the elder author's revisions – most notably in a sequence where Blaze and another classmate do a runaway from the hellacious residence hall where they're placed.

Still, for the most part, this is a fairly clear-eyed look at a well-drawn character who doesn't need a lot of outside prodding to get our sympathies. Just watching Blaze struggle through the process of a crime he has no business attempting (when he phones the family to deliver his ransom demands, he calls collect and even gives his name to the operator) is enough to keep us reading. The book's kidnapping sequence is a particular page-turner.

Bet the Coen brothers could make a great flick (the flipside to the comedic Raising Arizona) outta this 'un.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.