Saturday, April 11, 2015

Stephen King: The Colorado Kid (2005)

This short novel (163 pages) is a paperback original from Hard Case Crime, a small publisher specializing in both old and new hardboiled crime novels.

From the original press release:
"Steve is an extraordinary writer, and as much a fan of classic paperback crime fiction as we are," said Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime's editor. "We originally contacted him to see if he'd be willing to write a blurb for our line, and he decided that what he really wanted to do was write a book for us instead. We're thrilled that he wanted to be part of Hard Case Crime and we're very excited to get to introduce the world to the baffling mystery of The Colorado Kid."

"This is an exciting line of books," Stephen King commented, "and I'm delighted to be a part of it. Hard Case Crime presents good, clean, bare-knuckled storytelling, and even though The Colorado Kid is probably more bleu than outright noir, I think it has some of those old-fashioned kick-ass story-telling virtues. It ought to; this is where I started out, and I'm pleased to be back."
The Colorado Kid is hyped on the back cover as an "investigation into the unknown", a story "about the darkness at the heart of the unknown and our compulsion to investigate the unexplained", a tale "whose subject is nothing less than the nature of mystery itself". That's giving this thin story far more credit than it deserves.

Oldtimers Dave Bowie and Vince Teague run the small newspaper serving the seaside community of Moose-Lookit, Maine. Stephanie, who is from Ohio, is an intern they have hired for the summer. As the book begins, a writer for the Boston Globe has asked around for any information for a series of articles on "unexplained events" in New England, but he has left empty-handed. Stephanie, knowing the two men have been in the news business for decades, says they must have heard of something strange and "unexplained" over the years.

Instead of a straight story, we hear about the tale of the Colorado Kid as remembered by the two men, who stop periodically so they and Stephanie can talk about various aspects of the tale. Dave and Vince insist that there really is no "story", nothing with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. That's what newspapers want and that's why this tale is no good for the Globe.

One morning in 1980, a pair of teenagers discover an unidentified dead man on the beach. It is later determined that he choked to death on a piece of food. He is not identified and nothing much happens until about 16 months later, when a young man who had been working with the two detectives assigned to the case, has a flashback to the tax stamp on the bottom of the unknown man's pack of cigarettes. It turns out the stamp says "Colorado".

Dave and Vince mail a copy of the man's picture, taken shortly after he was discovered on the beach, to 78 newspapers in Colorado. In short order, they hear from a woman named Arla Cogen, who turns out to be the man's wife/widow. She gives the two newspapermen details about James Cogan's life (including the fact that he was never a smoker). Her information raises several questions: How did Cogan get from Denver to a small coastal Maine town in only a few hours on the day he died? And why? And what's up with the pack of cigarettes?

Dave, Vince, and Stephanie run through several possibilities, teasing each one out, trying to construct a probable narrative. But the truth cannot be known in this case - and guesswork is as far as they get. And this is also as far as King gets. The book ends with the Kid's appearance and death just as shrouded in mystery as before.

In an afterword, King acknowledges that readers will either love or hate the story. "Mystery is my subject here," he writes. "I'm really not interested in the solution but the mystery." King can count me among those who did not like the story - or thought that there wasn't enough of a story to like or not like. When King was producing his best work, he likely would have realized TCK was going nowhere and simply filed it away. Or, if he was intent on exploring the essence of mystery, he would have come up with a more engaging premise. We are told several times how excited and intrigued Stephanie is by this mystery, but we never get that feeling ourselves.

Also, King's use of Maine slang/dialect gets in the way of the story's flow. The two newspaper men repeatedly say "Ayuh" and "Gorry!", drop the "g"s from the end of words, and often remind themselves (and us) that Stephanie is "from away" (i.e., not a local). King did a masterful job capturing an authentic Maine voice in Dolores Claibourne, but he strikes out here. King even interrupts the storytelling to explain that "fair" is pronounced fay-yuh, "bury" rhymes with furry, and dinnah is the meal you eat around noon time.

Next: Cell.

1 comment:

laura k said...

Yes! The return of Stephen King!