Hearts in Atlantis is advertised as "new fiction" as opposed to "a novel". The book consists of two novellas and three short stories; it is a single narrative that spans 40 years and whose parts are linked by various characters.
The first novella, "Low Man in Yellow Coats", is set in 1960. Eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield lives with his mother in an apartment building in Harwich, Connecticut. In describing Bobby's friendships with Carol Gerber and John "Sully" Sullivan, King achieves the same warm, comfortable narrative he did in "The Body" (Different Seasons). Bobby befriends an older gentleman named Ted Brautigan, who moves into building's third floor apartment. Ted hires Bobby to read the newspaper to him and turns him on to various books, including "Lord of the Flies".
But this coming-of-age story takes an ominous turn. Ted also wants Bobby to keep watch around town for "low men in yellow coats", a group of people Ted is apparently on the run from. (Ted's background is connected with The Dark Tower series, and so the story eventually becomes more fantasy than Gothic.) When the terrifying low men finally converge on Ted and Bobby, the boy tearfully chooses to back down rather than fight. That decision is a harsh reality for Bobby to absorb; he may not be the person he thought he was. Also, there is an undercurrent of violence through the entire story. Bobby and Carol are menaced by three neighbourhood bullies (who later attack Carol with a baseball bat) and Bobby's mother is gang-raped by her boss and two other men during an out-of-town convention trip.
In "Hearts in Atlantis" (the novella), Pete Riley, a student at the University of Maine in 1966, becomes addicted to playing Hearts with his dorm buddies. Many of the boys forgo studying for these epic card marathons and miss numerous classes. Those that are on scholarships are in danger of losing them' being kicked out of college will greatly increase their chances of being drafted and sent to Vietnam.
King attended the same university during the same years as Riley, but how much of his own experience is in the narrative is unclear. I would venture that the account of seeing the first student with what looked like a "sparrow-track" on the back of his jacket - a peace sign - is probably close to the author's own experience.
King often refers to the games of Hearts in terms that could also apply to the war, an out-of-control event that is destroying the educational dreams of these boys: "the mad season had begun", "a kind of blind fatalism set in", "the suicidal pull of that third-floor lounge", "committing a kind of group suicide", "quitting the game was the only sane solution".
Pete becomes involved with Carol Gerber, who also attends the university and is active in the anti-war movement. Through her conversations, we learn a bit more about Bobby's childhood. And the three short stories bring the various threads up to the modern day.
In "Blind Willie", one of the boys who assaulted Carol went on to serve in Vietnam and witnessed various atrocities. By 1983, he lives in a suburb of New York City with his wife. Each day, dressed as a businessman, he commutes into the city, changes clothes, and begs for change near St. Patrick's Cathedral. He is consumed by guilt over what he did to Carol ("that occasion of sin has never left his mind") and has filled multiple bound ledgers with expressions of true regret ("penance is important to him").
In "Why We're In Vietnam" (a reference to Norman Mailer's 1967 novel Why Are We In Vietnam?), it's 1999 and John Sullivan is attending the funeral of a veteran he served with. At the funeral, he talks to his former commander, Dieffenbaker, at length about an incident in combat that could have easily devolved into another My Lai. Sullivan has never been able to truly leave his past behind, to truly leave Vietnam. Since the war, he has been haunted by an old woman that one of his fellow soldiers murdered during an attack on a village. While driving home from the funeral, he gets stuck in highway traffic, and suffers a fatal heart attack.
King seems disgusted with what much of his generation did with their anger and disillusionment. After their innocence was shattered during the 60s and early 70s, they simply gave up. Dieffenbaker tells Sullivan:
I loathe and despise my generation. ... We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent-flier miles, James Cameron's Titanic, and retirement portfolios. ... You know the price of selling out the future, Sully? You can really never leave the past. You can never get over.In "Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling", Bobby Garfield, now 50 years old, returns to Harwich for Sully's funeral. Carol is also there and we learn that she joined the Militant Students for Peace and was presumed dead after a faulty bomb set by the group killed several people. In truth, she changed her name and went underground. Unlike the other characters, Bobby and Carol each seem to have achieved some closure with their pasts.
In reading reviews of the book online, it seems that many readers felt the title novella was the weakest part of the book. I thought just the opposite. It shows that King can be an exceptional writer even when (or perhaps especially when?) he dispenses with his trademark fantasy and horror, although the fear and reality of being sent to Vietnam did not loom as darkly and intensely over the boys as I expected.
I enjoyed huge sections of Hearts in Atlantis a lot, but I also agree with the Chicago Tribune's review, which stated that the political and social concerns never truly resonate "because the horrors of the Vietnam War are never really confronted in a sustained manner, ultimately diminishing the book's power".