Saturday, November 07, 2015

Stephen King: Blaze (as Richard Bachman) (2007)

Stephen King refers to Blaze as "a trunk novel", written in late 1972/early 1973 and then packed away. "I thought it was great while I was writing it, and crap when I read it over." Many, many years later, King revised his thinking.
"I thought it was pretty good - certainly better than Roadwork [published in 1981 as Richard Bachman's third novel], which I had, at the time, considered mainstream American fiction. ... I thought Blaze could be re-written and published without too much embarrassment ... I thought it could be a minor tragedy of the underclass, if the re-writing was ruthless. To that end, I adopted the flat, dry tones which the best noir fiction seems to have ... I worked fast, never looking ahead or back, wanting also to capture the headlong drive of those books ... I also determined to strip all the sentiment I could from the writing itself, wanted the finished book to be as stark as an empty house without even a rug on the floor."
Kevin Quigley: "The story is unrelenting. True to his intentions, King has crafted an economical read, as quickly paced as the earliest Bachman novels. ... In tone and speed, Blaze recalls the doomed march of The Long Walk; the more complex and tragic back story brings to mind Bart Dawes in Roadwork. ... [T]here's little actual hope to be found in these pages, so what we are left with is a suspicious sort of compassion."

I completely agree with Quigley. For the most part, King succeeded. The sentences are short and sharp - the tone and rhythm was a significant change from the last few King books I have tried to read (from the mid-00s). It's hard to know without seeing the original manuscript, but there were times when a sentence felt redundant (or included a brand name) and I wondered if this had been one of King's later additions. The tone and bleak outlook of Blaze is in keeping with the other early Bachman novels, all of which are worth reading except for one. Stay far away from The Regulators (which is not an early Bachman novel).

Clayton Blaisdell Jr. is mixed up in petty crime and eventually finds a protector and friend in George Rackley. The two men pull many cons together, but roughly three months before the book begins, George is knifed to death during a card game - and Blaze is alone. (During the first few months after George's death, Blaze swears George is nearby and he can hear his voice talking to him. Fortunately, there is nothing supernatural going on. It's simply in Blaze's head.) Before he died, George talked about pulling one last big con - stealing a baby and holding it for ransom. When Blaze reads in the paper about the baby of a very rich family living nearby, he sets out to do the job himself. Of course, Blaze is doomed to fail.

King's narrative alternates between the present day, as Blaze prepares for and pulls off the kidnapping and is then forced to care for a three-month old infant during a cold Maine winter, and incidents in Blaze's past. It is a very depressing tale. Blaze's mother dies shortly after giving birth and his father is physically abusive, at one point throwing the young child down a flight of stairs. This results in a large dent in Blaze's forehead and his slow mental faculties.

Blaze is placed in a group home called Hetton House. He is periodically "adopted" by various couples, but it usually turns out to be a farmer and his wife looking for free labor during harvest time. Once the crops are picked, Blaze is returned to Hetton House because the situation "simply didn't work out".

While a reader knows Blaze cannot possibly succeed in getting away clean with the ransom money, the story does have its uplifting and tender moments, as Blaze bonds with the baby, at one point thinking that the money is unimportant and as long as the two of them are together, they will survive. A few incidents in Blaze's past hint at happiness - when he and a friend find a wallet full of cash and go AWOL from Hetton House on a bus to Boston for a few days, when Blaze gets a job picking blueberries and is accorded some responsibility by the kind-hearted owner of the farm - which simply makes the rest of his story doubly tragic.

Next: Duma Key.

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