Following the pattern of Different Seasons, Stephen King creates four novellas. This one is different, however. It traces the lives of four children from a town in Connecticut: Bobby Garfield, Carol Gerber, Willy Shearman, and John Sullivan. The first novella, Low Men in Yellow Coats, is the story the movie Hearts in Atlantis is based upon. Ted Brautigan, an old man from parts unknown, moves into the apartment above where Bobby Garfield and his mother live. His mother dislikes Ted instantly, but Bobby and Ted forge a bond that has been lacking since Bobby’s father died. Ted, you see, is on the run from the Low Men, nasty creatures from King’s Dark Tower epic. Bobby learns what Ted believes to be a man and learns it well. While his best friend John Sullivan is away at camp, he saves Carol Gerber from a severe beating at the hands of some older toughs, one of whom is Willy Shearman.
Fast forward to the title novella, which refers to the narrator Pete Riley’s idea that America in the mid-sixties is Atlantis and that the war in Vietnam, which he soon finds himself protesting, is Atlantis slowly sinking into the sea. The titular “hearts” is a manic, almost 24/7 game of Hearts played in Pete’s dorm. The obsession causes many to drop out of school as their grades suffer, which means they will be dying overseas within months. Pete meets a girl, though, one who becomes a radical. Her name is Carol Gerber, and he considers Carol leaving school just as they become lovers to be the most serious loss of his life. Musing years later, when Carol has disappeared, believed to be dead, he wonders if he could have saved her.
Willy Shearman also wonders. The man who beat Carol as a child became a hero in Vietnam, saving the life of Carol’s high school sweetheart, John Sullivan. But Willy has seen where his original path was leading in a battle that resembles the My Lai massacre in all the wrong ways. So Willy does pennance. He travels by train from his home in suburban Connecticut to Manhattan, goes up to an office no one will ever visit, climbs through the ceiling to another office no one will ever visit, and changes into his disguise. He changes into another disguise as Blind Willy, the blind, wounded veteran. Willy chooses this disguise because, as he and Sully John (as John Sullivan is called all through the book), recovered from their wounds, Willy was blind. And as the blind beggar on Fifth Avenue, Bill Shearman does his penance for hurting Carol, wondering if she ever survived the manhunt that followed a botched bombing.
John Sullivan picks up the story, recounting the battle, those he fought alongside, and even some of Pete Riley’s former card shark pals. Sully John suffers from PTSD in the form of hallucinations. One of Pete’s dorm mates, the aptly named Malefant, bayonets an old woman to death, one of the horrors of war. The old woman appears to Sully John over the years, going from a reminder of the horror of war to an imaginary companion he knows is unreal, but has come to welcome anyway. She has not appeared for some time until 1999, when a fellow soldier’s funeral triggers her appearance. In a traffic jam, she even talks to him.
It is Sully John’s funeral that lures Bobby Garfield back to the story. He is shocked when a woman who “doesn’t know any Carol Gerber” shows up. Ted is mentioned. The Dark Tower is barely hinted at. And yet Bobby and Carol, each other’s first boyfriend/girlfriend, bring the story to a close by stashing something Bobby thought he’d lost in a hiding place they once used in a more innocent time.
I like that King wants to tell a story through five different novellas (Well, four and a short story). However, the crux of the story seems to be the sixties and its impact on those who lived through it. I don’t mind King injecting The Dark Tower into some of his work. It tends to unify his storytelling. However, most of Hearts in Atlantis takes place in a world where the supernatural is irrelevant. Otherwise, it was a beautiful sight watching these four people go from preteen to middle age in a way only King can write it.