Thursday Reviews: The Dark Tower IV: Wizard And Glass by Stephen King

The Dark Tower IV: Wizard & Glass

Stephen King

For the fourth installment of his epic Dark Tower series, Stephen King goes back in time to Roland Deschain’s early youth. After surviving Blaine the Monorail’s suicidal crash into a rail terminal, Roland and his ka-tet find themselves in Kansas City. Not our Kansas City, but one Stephen King fans will recognize instantly. The flu virus known as Captain Tripps has devastated this world. Yes, they’ve wandered into the world of The Stand. And we are explicitly shown that this world is not ours. The Kansas City baseball team is the Monarchs, not the Royals. One of the cars left behind is not a Toyota or a Chevy or any other make common in 1986. It’s a Takuro Spirit. But there is more. A large fog-like object lurks along an abandoned I-70, making a noise that makes our travelers sick. It is a “thinny,” a place where existence fading out. Roland has seen this before, centuries before, actually, in a far-flung barony known as Meijis.

In that time, young Roland and his friends Cuthbert and Alain are sent west to Meijis to count resources – horses, food, boats – that the Affiliation, the group of baronies within Midworld, can use in their war against John Farson, the so-called “Good Man.” While there, Roland meets and falls in love with Susan Delgado, a local who is promised to the mayor as his “gilly” (a sort of concubine). It’s a forbidden love that leads to the discovery of a plot by the leading men of Meijis to throw in with Farson. It is also the greatest tragedy of Roland’s life as his whole future is destroyed. By the time he returns to his native Gilead, he learns his destiny is to seek The Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

In the framing story, in the epic’s “present,” Roland and his ka-tet come across an exaggerated version of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. And who is the Wizard? The ruse is created by Roland’s father’s wizard, Marten Broadcloak, who reveals that he is now Randall Flagg. It is also here that the Crimson King of Insomnia is the driving evil force in all of existence, and that all of King’s fiction (with the exception of Carrie, apparently) is part of The Dark Tower’s tapestry.

The framing story, which includes Eddie of New York’s flippant outsmarting of Blaine the Suicidal Monorail, could have made a decent standalone novel within Dark Tower series. Wandering into the world of The Stand and into a sick parody of The Wizard of Oz offers a rich amount of creative fodder, as well as making for a shorter novel. The story of Roland and Susan is novel-length story in and of itself. It might have been better as two shorter books. Still, The Dark Tower shows a renewed energy in King’s writing. Reading this, I really did want to turn the page and would feel let down when work or other life events pulled me away from the book.

Thursday Reviews: The Book Of Virtue by Ken Bruen; The Ballad Of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde; The Waste Lands by Stephen King

The Book of Virtue

Ken Bruen

I always start the year off with a Ken Bruen book. This year, I started with a short story issued by Mysterious Press. The story is about a young man in New York who is never named but narrates the story. His father has died, which thrills him beyond belief. They did not have the best relationship. All his father leaves him is a book with one word on the cover: “Virtue.” Inside, his father had written several poetic quotes in an attempt to educate himself. Our protag is not impressed. He has more important things to worry about, like running the Khe Sanh Club and banging his boss’s mistress Cici. The time is approaching when he and Cici need to take down their boss, Brady. But as he reads the surprisingly sage advice of his dead father, he finds his life spiraling out of control.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde

This narrative poem was written anonymously by Wilde while he served time in Reading Prison for homosexuality. (Yeah. That used to be a crime. And America was actually the more forward thinking country on the topic back then.) During his sentence, he witnessed the hanging of a man convicted of murdering his wife. During his stay on death row, the man maintained a rather jaunty attitude for someone condemned to die. What starts out as a tale of one man’s journey from dock to gallows becomes a meditation on prison life and the effects of the death penalty on those tasked with its execution.

Though written by an English humorist (Wilde’s infamous wit is understandably absent here) at the end of the 19th century, as the tale drags on, you can almost here Johnny Cash, he of “Folsom Prison Blues” among other songs about convicts, either reciting the words or warbling them over a mournful acoustic guitar. Indeed, it might have made an interesting edition to the American recordings.

The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III)

by Stephen King

Even by Stephen King standards, The Dark Tower series is weird. We have Roland, the nearly immortal spaghetti Western gunslinger marching across time and his dying world toward the mysterious Dark Tower, which stands at the center of time and space. In Book 1, The Gunslinger, he chased a wizard named Walter across a desert and under mountains in a world that looked like a Salvadore Dali painting come to life. In Book 2, The Drawing of the Three, Roland comes to our world and picks up two new gunslingers, a recovering heroin addict and a schizophrenic woman whose legs have been cut off below the knees. Oh, and the boy Roland let die in Book 1? He saves him from his killer in this one.

Yes, King is screwing with time. And the consequences are that Roland (and the boy, Jake) remember both timelines. The paradox threatens to drive him insane. Together with Eddie and Susannah, his new companions, he retrieves the suddenly not-dead Jake from the New York of Eddie’s adolescence. And if Roland’s going mad, think about how bad Jake has it. He remembers dying. Twice.

The group presses on to Lud, a city in Midworld that bears a striking resemblance to New York in some ways, only centuries after the Apocalypse. They are in search of a train. In typical King fashion, the train is sentient. And bipolar. And a bit passive aggressive.

Thursday Reviews: The Civil War: A Narrative Volume 3 by Shelby Foote; It’s Not About The Coffee by Howard Behar & Janet Goldstein; The Dark Tower II: The Drawing Of The Three by Stephen King

The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 3

Shelby Foote

When last we left our intrepid Union Army, they’d just occupied Chattanooga and opened the Mississippi River. As we open, we find both sides are getting tired. Lincoln, sick of Napoleon wannabes getting timid on the eve of battle, calls Ulysses S. Grant east to take charge of the entire US Army.

Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee is fighting a war of attrition trying to hold Richmond, the Confederate capital. The new republic has been split in two by the opening of the Mississippi. Now Sherman is threatening Atlanta, tightening the noose. Food is running out. The Confederate dollar is worth only pennies compared to its Union counterpart. The only encouraging signs for the CSA are Nathaniel Banks’ failed incursion into Texas and Raphael Semmes’ high seas piracy aboard the CSS Alabama.

As Sherman closes in on Richmond after burning his way from Atlanta to the sea, then devastating South Carolina, Jefferson Davis goes into a state of denial. He believes the fight can be carried on, even with Grant patiently standing his ground at the gates of Richmond. It’s this rapidly deteriorating state of affairs that rejuvenates a demoralized Union Army and gets Lincoln re-elected. At the end, Lincoln is murdered just as Grant and Lee build a framework for Confederate troops to surrender with dignity. Davis, unrepentant and still considering Lincoln the enemy, is horrified, stating that Lincoln was not malicious toward the South, only defending an opposing cause. The slaying, and the resulting chaos that was Reconstruction, only proves that John Wilkes Boothe was a traitor not only to the United States, but the Confederate cause he claimed to cherish.

Foote’s narrative paints a portrait of a nation exhausted by war and ready to move on. In a long and detailed epilogue, focusing mainly on Jefferson Davis after his capture, Foote gives substance to what the struggle meant to the nation. Before Ft. Sumter, the name United States went from plural to singular, that, even in those first few months when the South was occupied territory, America was more a singular nation than a collection of competing states.

It’s Not About the Coffee: Life Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks

Howard Behar & Janet Goldstein

Love them or hate them, Starbucks is a success story. Unlike many tech firms, where long hours and obsession with the product are considered virtue, Starbucks built its success on trying to be a great place to work. The attitude permeates the entire company. They do not have a corporate headquarters. They have a support center. Against retail convention, they pay more than minimum wage to their employees. Or rather partners. And ducking a scandal, a mistake, or a catastrophe is frowned upon. Behar points at Enron as an example of why a company should never do that.

Life at Starbucks is not perfect. But Behar illustrates how, if a company is much more than the bottom-line obsessed organization, those values will permeate the company and allow it to be more successful and more resilient.

The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower 2)

Stephen King

The first volume of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, found Roland, the last gunslinger in a world that has “moved on,” wandering through a land that is part spaghetti Western, part Salvadore Dali painting. Picking up just hours after the end of that story, Roland is found asleep on the beach, attacked by vicious crablike things he dubs “lobstrosities.” In the first tome, the Man in Black (who is likely Randall Flagg of The Stand, as well as the magician from The Eyes of the Dragon) showed Roland that he will “draw” three people from another world. Wounded, injured, and sick, Roland finds a door to “our” world and “draws” Eddie Dean, a heroin addict who is in the process of delivering a shipment to his mobster boss. Roland emerges into our world after talking to Eddie’s mind (It’s a bit more complex than that) and winds up helping Eddie in a gunfight. His second draw is a legless black woman named Odetta Holmes. Or Detta Walker. She is the woman of shadows, and she is really two women. Odetta is the person born into that body, the daughter of a wealthy black dentist in 1960’s New York. Detta is her bat-shit insane alter-ego. Odetta is schizophrenic, and Roland soon discovers his third, The Pusher, is responsible the wounds to Odetta’s mind and her body.

While The Gunslinger was unfocused and a bit surreal, The Drawing of the Three, while episodic, is more straightforward. A self-contained story, albeit one with a clear sequel in mind, it is more of a true quest story, having much in common with The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger By Stephen King

I could start by saying this is a strange book. And you’d say, “Well, duh. It’s a Stephen King book.” But there’s a certain sense of normalcy in a King book. The monster is more a catalyst than the star. Witness how Barlow shows up in Salem’s Lot and sets the town against itself while he picks off the inhabitants one by one. Or Randall Flag quietly gathering his forces in The Stand. Sure, “The Walking Dude” is a rock star villain, but he’s not the central player.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger is a weird book for Stephen King. For starters, it takes place in a world that “has moved on.” The world Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, is spent, used-up, long past its civilization’s peak. There are bits and pieces of our world in Roland’s, but it’s clearly not ours. In the beginning, Roland shows up in a town called Tull, at the edge of a vast desert. He’s been walking for a thousand years, chasing a Man in Black, sometimes called “Walter o’Dim.” Roland new him in his youth as “Marten,” who seduced his mother and caused his father’s death. And the Man in Black has just passed through, grinning madly and leaving a couple of traps for Roland.

His presence eventually forces Roland to slaughter the entire town after he kills the preacher woman’s unborn child, who is the offspring of a being known as the Crimson King. (One assumes this, like a lot of Stephen King, was written with classic rock pounding through the speakers.)

Crossing the desert, which takes days and no one knows what lies beyond, Roland encounters a boy, Jake, swept from our world into Roland’s by the Man in Black. He is apparently the key to catching the Man in Black. They will cross the desert, chase the man up a high mountain range, and crawl through the belly of those mountains to reach him. In the process, Roland encounters two demons, one of whom he makes love to.

King has described this work as a cross between King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And it shows. The gunslingers are shown in flashbacks to be knightly warriors, the defenders of a civilization that’s evaporated by the time the story begin. Roland and Jake’s journey is not all that different from the hobbits trek to Rivendell in The Fellowship of the Ring, though it ends nowhere near as pleasantly. And Roland, of course, is a superhuman shootist.

This book was a little hard to get into at the start. King himself says in the intro that it took until the second Dark Tower book to find this story’s voice. Since King used his other work to inform this story, a sort of Stephen King fanfic tale written by King himself, it should come as no surprise that the Man in Black is noneother than The Walking Dude, Randall Flagg from The Stand. Like most of King’s work, one does not have to read the Dark Tower to get the most out of the other stories. It barely ties in to his Castle Rock stories until Dreamcatcher, written two decades later. Cujo has ties to the later Dark Tower books, but itself is not a supernatural story. Skip the series, and you’re left feeling sorry for a very doomed St. Bernard dying of rabies and forced by the disease to become a monster.

But read the series…

It was a slow start joining Roland on his quest to find the mysterious Dark Tower. And the Man in Black is, as one suspects reading The Stand, where he is The Walking Dude, simply a toady of a greater evil.