Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stephen King: Dreamcatcher (2001)

Dreamcatcher was the first novel Stephen King published after his near-fatal accident in 1999. Because he was unable to sit at his desk for extended periods of time, he ended up writing the first draft of the novel by hand, in only six and a half months.

King states (in the afterword): "To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven't been for years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored."

Dreamcatcher takes place over a few days in November 2001. A group of four old friends from Derry, Maine - Joe "Beaver" Clarendon, Pete Moore, Henry Devlin, and Gary "Jonesy" Jones - have gathered for their annual deer hunting trip at a cabin deep in the woods of the Jefferson Tract. There have been reports of strange lights in the sky - and things begin going wrong when they find a lost and disoriented hunter named McCarthy wandering through the woods.

McCarthy is in some serious distress - there is an alien presence growing in him that will be expelled only by moving his bowels (hence, the wonderful term for these invasive creatures: "shit-weasels"). King delights in describing McCarthy's (and a few other characters') odious farts and thunderous belches as the alien grows and moves within him: "brutal and meaty", with a "sulfurous rotten-egg odor", "a long, purring fart that sounded like ripping cloth", "a deflating rubber toy", "an untalented child blowing over a piccolo". One character's bad breath is "a mixture of ether and overripe bananas" and a belch sounds like "a factory machine which has been put under severe strain".

The men eventually learn that an alien spacecraft has crashed in the Maine woods and the surrounding area is now sealed off. Everyone in the area - residents and hunters - are rounded up and placed in a military camp, in an operation led by a military madman named Kurtz. Complicating matters is that a fierce snowstorm is on the way. Dreamcatcher is the story of how the aliens' desire to spread the virus across a larger area is eventually defeated. And it is up to the four men - who reunite with an old friend from their childhoods - to stop this murderous contamination.

So: Is Dreamcatcher the tale of five friends who must bond together to overcome an alien invasion? Is it a military/alien thriller? Is it a supernatural, multi-dimensional science-fiction tale with telepathic characters? It tries to be all three. And it has elements of It, The Tommyknockers, and "The Body".

Heidi Strengell, writing in Dissecting Stephen King: From The Gothic To Literary Naturalism:
Including both dream sequences and numerous shifts in time, the complex novel has three levels. It can be viewed as a science-fiction parody, as a tale of horror, and as a comment on the absence of responsibility.
Dreamcatcher never felt parodic to me, and despite the graphic descriptions of the cancerous "shit-weasels", it was neither horrific nor scary. Indeed, the race to prevent the alien virus from being dumped into a Massachusetts water reservoir unfolded almost in slow-motion. It was clear the aliens' plan would be thwarted; it was simply a matter of slogging through the pages to see how it happened.

I would agree with Strengell that King (once again, as he has several times throughout his lengthy career) highlights the government's lack of concern for its citizens and, in this novel, its willingness to murder hundreds of them to keep the true nature of the alien menace a secret. Commenting on both The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher, Strengell writes:
In doing so, he shows how technology for its own sake may not be progress at all and how little the government take responsibility for its citizens. By acknowledging that scientific progress has done little for humans as moral beings, King pleads for the restoration of the dignity of the human being.
Some other random notes:

Jonesy is an assistant professor of history at a small Boston college. He is a "lifelong connoisseur of horror movies, suspense novels, and mysteries" and was struck by a car earlier in the year (suffering injuries extremely similar to what King suffered). Having read elsewhere that King was on-point in his descriptions of Jonesy's pain and rehabilitation, I was surprised that there was so little of it in the novel.

In a nod to It, there are several mentions of how children often go missing in Derry. "There have been a lot of child disappearances here over the years ... but nobody talks much about it. It's as if the occasional missing kid is the price of living in such a nice, quiet place." That confused me, because I had thought, from reading It, that Derry was a disgusting town. Even in this novel, King says Derry was built on "what was once swampland shunned even by the Micmac Indians who lived all around it". (King also mentions Derry's "ancient and incredibly complex systems of drains and sewers".)

King is still capable of some great writing. When Henry Devlin inspires the captives to revolt against the military and attempt an escape, the narrative comes crackling to life, like a small fire after some lighter fluid has been tossed on it. The reader works furiously, taking in the words quickly, feverishly, as the action unfolds. King has always been good at describing utter chaos and the complete destruction of a compound, estate, town, country, etc. And King is an expert at showing the bonds of friendship between boys on the cusp of being teenagers, though his characterizations here remain a far cry from his best work: "The Body" and It.

Jonesy's body is inhabited (taken over, really) by one of the aliens, who Jonesy dubs Mr. Gray. Towards the end of the novel, King intimates that Mr. Gray never existed; he was simply a part of Jonesy:
Mr. Gray is the phantom limb you still feel, the one you could swear is still there. ... They never existed as actual creatures aliens, ETs. The grays as physical beings were always created out of the human imagination...
This raises several questions about King's narrative, since for hundreds of pages he has been writing as though the opposite was true. This - and other plot twists - gives a reader the impression that King is simply making up stuff as goes along, whether it jibes with earlier portions of the book or not. (Also, the use of telepathy between the characters is extremely convenient as characters can magically know things they have not actually experienced.)

Ultimately, the 617-page book is a dull mess. (One site ranked it #62 of King's 64 novels.) My biggest complaint is the extended Jonesy/Gray sequences do little to move the plot forward. King could have told this story in at least 200 fewer pages, perhaps 300 fewer.

The Stand and It are huge novels, and two of King's best works. (I also have a strange affection for the well-hated The Tommyknockers.) However, since the mid-80s, King's various doorstoppers - Needful Things, Insomnia, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher - have been a big disappointments. Instead, King has excelled only when writing on a smaller canvas: Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, and two-thirds of Rose Madder.

Next: Black House (written with Peter Straub).

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Building Sanctuary: The Movement To Support Vietnam War Resisters In Canada, 1965-73, By Jessica Squires

Building Sanctuary: The Movement to Support Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, 1965-73
(University of British Columbia, 2013)

By Jessica Squires

Many Canadians wish to think of their country as a peaceful nation, but that vision is an oversimplification, if not an outright fabrication. Author Jessica Squires writes that if Canada was ever a refuge from militarism, "it was a hard-fought and bitterly defended refuge as well as a contingent and partial one, at best".

Building Sanctuary is Squires's detailed academic study of the Canadian anti-draft movement and its fight to allow Vietnam War resisters from the United States to legally cross the border into Canada and apply for permanent residence in their new country. Squires relies on interviews with both activists and resisters, as well as newspaper accounts, police records, and government documents (both public and internal), to present a detailed history of the movement.

Squires defines a war resister in this context as "any American immigrant who came to Canada to avoid complicity in, or out of opposition to, their government's actions in Vietnam". Squires favours this broad, inclusive definition, because it takes in draft dodgers as well as deserters, and women who came north in protest of the U.S.'s murderous foreign policy.

As Squires expertly explains, support and acceptance of Vietnam War resisters in Canada was neither automatic nor unproblematic. While Canada encouraged immigration from the U.S. throughout the 1960s, the issue of draft dodgers coming north towards the end of that decade began to complicate things. While the U.S. was still regarded as a source of skilled workers, the Canadian government did not want to be seen as encouraging war resisters.

The first groups to offer assistance to Vietnam War resisters formed in late 1965 and early 1966 in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, publishing pamphlets with information on hostel accommodations, tips on securing cheap housing and finding employment, information on immigration law, and how to apply for landed status in Canada. Many church groups and clergy also played an essential role, even if their church members did not support the cause. (Opponents complained about "unwashed cowards" and "long haired Johnnies with strong communist tendenc[ies]".)

In August 1967, Pierre Trudeau's White Paper on Immigration introduced a new points system for establishing the eligibility of potential immigrants. Applicants were awarded points in a variety of categories, including age, level of education, vocational training, occupational demand, and destination. Even with a system in place that was intended to eliminate bias from the process, there were reports of "conscious and explicit obstruction by immigration officers". Squires reports that false information was regularly given out at border crossings, airports, consulates, and immigration offices.

In early 1968, proof of military discharge was not required for applicants inside Canada, so deserters would come to Canada as visitors and apply for landed immigrant status once they were inside the country. In July 1968, the Trudeau government secretly ended this practice and allowed immigration officers to use their own "discretion" on whether to consider or disregard military status.

Squires notes that "internal departmental memos indicate that this regulation change was specifically intended to prevent deserters from entering Canada". In some cases, after refusing entry into Canada, Canadian officials then called U.S. border guards to inform them that a military deserter was on his way back. After this information became public - and the government was flooded with letters and telegrams of complaint (some of which Squires quotes) - the government relented and made the announcement in May 1969 that military status was irrelevant at the border.

Building Sanctuary also reports that most anti-draft groups were under constant surveillance for years by both the RCMP and local police forces, even after the border was opened in 1969. There were numerous raids on resisters and their supporters (searching for drugs was a common excuse). There were widespread assumptions in the movement that the RCMP shared information with the FBI; indeed, it appears that plainclothes FBI agents were allowed to operate on their own in Canada.

Squires also discusses some of the internal debates within the movement at the time, including whether some men were avoiding the draft because of anti-war sentiment or personal reasons, whether it was a better strategy for Americans to remain in the U.S. and work to end the war from there, and to what extent should resisters assimilate into Canadian society. One resister explains: "Emigrating to Canada was considered less heroic than going to jail - better than serving ... but still a cop-out". However, Joseph Jones, a draft dodger, states: "Anyone who presumed to judge how someone should resist was just plain ignorant."

The academic writing style of Building Sanctuary lacks the narrative drive of a conventional history, but it's an important work of Canadian political and anti-war history. As the movement to allow Iraq War resisters from the U.S. to remain in Canada begins its second decade, the hard work and successes of a previous generation of activists in shaping Canadian immigration policies can offer inspiration and hope.

This review was also published in Socialist Worker.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stephen King: Hearts In Atlantis (1999)

According to the three authors of The Stephen King Universe, Hearts in Atlantis is King's "most ambitious literary novel ... an exploration of the many facets of the Vietnam War era and the way it has tarnished America's idea of itself".

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".

Next: Dreamcatcher.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Stephen King: June 19, 1999 (The Accident)

On the afternoon of June 19, 1999, ten weeks after the publication of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Stephen King was seriously injured (almost fatally) when he was hit by a minivan while walking along the side of a road in North Lovell, Maine. King, 51, was struck from behind when the van's driver was distracted and lost control of his vehicle.

Stephen King, On Writing:
The extent of the impact injuries is such that the doctors at Northern Cumberland Hospital decide they cannot treat me there; someone summons a LifeFlight helicopter to take me to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. At this point my wife, older son, and daughter arrive. The kids are allowed a brief visit; my wife is allowed to stay longer. The doctors have assured her that I'm banged up, but I'll make it.

The lower half of my body has been covered. She isn't allowed to look at the interesting way my lap has shifted around to the right, but she is allowed to wash the blood off my face and pick some of the glass out of my hair. There's a long gash in my scalp, the result of my collision with Bryan Smith's windshield. This impact came at a point less than two inches from the steel, driver's-side support post. Had I struck that, I likely would have been killed or rendered permanently comatose, a vegetable with legs. Had I struck the rocks jutting out of the ground beyond the shoulder of Route 5, I likely also would have been killed or permanently paralysed. I didn't hit them; I was thrown over the van and 14ft in the air, but landed just shy of the rocks.

"You must have pivoted to the left just a little at the last second," Dr David Brown tells me later. "If you hadn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation." ...

My lower leg was broken in at least nine places - the orthopaedic surgeon who put me together again, the formidable David Brown, said that the region below my right knee had been reduced to "so many marbles in a sock."

The extent of those lower-leg injuries necessitated two deep incisions - they're called medial and lateral fasciatomies - to release the pressure caused by the exploded tibia and also to allow blood to flow back into the lower leg. Without the fasciatomies (or if the fasciatomies had been delayed), it probably would have been necessary to amputate the leg. My right knee itself was split almost directly down the middle; the technical term for the injury is "comminuted intra-articular tibial fracture". I also suffered an acetabular cup fracture of the right hip - a serious derailment, in other words - and an open femoral intertrochanteric fracture in the same area. My spine was chipped in eight places. Four ribs were broken. My right collarbone held, but the flesh above it was stripped raw. The laceration in my scalp took 20 or 30 stitches. ...

I came home to Bangor on 9 July, after a hospital stay of three weeks. I began a daily rehab program which includes stretching, bending, and crutch-walking. I tried to keep my courage and my spirits up. On 4 August, I went back to CMMC for another operation. When I woke up this time, the Schanz pins in my upper thigh were gone. I could bend my knee again. Dr Brown pronounced my recovery "on course" and sent me home for more rehab and physical therapy. And in the midst of all this, something else happened. On 24 July, five weeks after Bryan Smith hit me with his Dodge van, I began to write again.
Hearts in Atlantis was already in the publishing pipeline and was released in September 1999. At the time of the accident, King had completed From A Buick 8 and was in the middle of On Writing. Dreamcatcher would be the first novel he wrote post-accident.