Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stephen King: From A Buick 8 (2002)

Stephen King completed a draft of this novel before his June 1999 accident, but its eventual release was pushed back a few years, apparently because it involves a serious car crash somewhat similar to the one that nearly killed King. He published Dreamcatcher, Black House, and Everything's Eventual before sending From A Buick 8 out into the world.

The story begins in the summer of 1979, when a mysterious man in black abandons a vintage Buick Roadmaster at a rural Pennsylvania gas station. An examination of the car raises questions about its origins: the battery is not hooked up to the unorthodox engine, the exhaust system is made of glass, the dashboard instruments are fake, and the odometer reads 000000. The local police (Troop D) eventually tow the vehicle back to their barracks and store it in Shed B.

Weird things start happening. The temperature is often 10-20 degrees colder inside Shed B than outside. When it gets especially chilly, extraordinarily bright flashes of light (the officers call them "lightquakes") emanate from and envelope the Buick. Troop D officers observing the car through the shed's windows can often hear (and feel) a low humming sound. Finally, various creatures are ejected out of the car's trunk - which is eventually believed to be a portal to another world/dimension.

The book is set during one day in 2002, as various officers tell the story of the Buick to Ned Wilcox, the 18-year-old son of Curtis Wilcox, a former member of Troop D who was struck and killed by a drunk driver when Ned was very young. Ned hangs around the barracks, doing odd jobs; he has numerous questions about his father (who was obsessed with the Buick).

From A Buick 8's message is: life is unknowable, things happen for no particular reason, and we will not be given an answer to every one of our questions. In an Author's Note, King describes the book as "a meditation on the essentially indecipherable quality of life's events, and how impossible it is to find a coherent meaning in them". King says a book's message should "arise naturally from the tale itself", but in this case he hammers his basic point home over and over.
What if you're never able to solve for x? (page 123)

[Curt realized] that he was almost certainly never going to know what he wanted to know. (173)

There comes a time when most folks see the big picture and realize they're puckered up not to kiss smiling fate on the mouth but because life just slipped them a pill, and it tastes bitter. (173)

Sometimes there's nothing to learn, or no way to learn it, or no reason to even try. ... (179)

Nothing. In the end, that's what it comes down to. If there's a formula - some binomial theorem or quadratic equation or something like that - I don't see it. (198)

All he had was a lot of questions, and the naive belief that just because he felt he needed the answers, those answers would come. (212)

The world rarely finishes its conversations. (307)
The authors of The Complete Stephen King Universe call the novel a "subtle triumph". I disagree, though there is a solid short story tucked away in From A Buick 8. At 350 pages, however, the novel is far too long. King includes pages and pages about police procedure, taking great pains to illustrate the familial atmosphere of the Troop D barracks, but all of that is secondary to the main plot.

His tale is repetitious and dull. Several "lightquakes" are extensively described, although the same things happen during each one. Curt Wilcox ventures into Shed B (with a heavy rope tied around his waist in case his fellow officers need to yank him back out to safety) to conduct some experiments regarding the Buick not once, but several times. The creatures that "come through" the Buick's trunk are certainly disgusting, but they don't strike seem particularly horrific. King wants to make these otherworldly beings as repulsive as possible, but his descriptions seem half-hearted.

Along the way, though, there are a couple of descriptions that are pure King:
Matt Babicki's radio was an endless blare of static with a few voices sticking out of it like the feet or fingers of buried men. (89)

The sun, going down in a cauldron of blood ... (106)
If King had truly retired from publishing as he vowed to do while recovering from his accident, From A Buick 8 would have been his final non-Dark Tower novel. Thankfully, his extraordinary career did not fizzle to an end with this pallid offering.

Next: The Dark Tower V: Wolves Of The Calla.

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