Disclaimer: I read this book and wrote big portions of this review while ill. So if it doesn’t make a ton of sense, that’s why. In my defense, the book made less and less sense as I read it, the stories flowing less effortlessly and feeling more forced. Which is common with King. Sticking the landing just isn’t his strength.
Out of all of the Stephen King books I’ve read, this one is by far the strangest, at least in terms of set-up. It’s not a novel, per se, nor is it a collection of short stories. These interconnected novellas become more and more dependent on one another as they progress, telling different facets of the same story in a way.
I cared the most about the first two, and by far the longest two, stories, and honestly would have enjoyed the book more had it ended after “Hearts in Atlantis.” “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is perhaps one of the very best, most moving stories I’ve ever read. “Hearts in Atlantis” was a study in human nature that spoke to me on a deep level. The remaining 3 shorter stories just didn’t have that same level of impact. I felt like the more war-heavy stories didn’t age very well. I did, however, like that the book ended with revisiting the main character from the first story. That decision made everything feel a little more cohesive overall. Below are my brief thoughts on each of the five stories.
Low Men in Yellow Coats:
This particular story, which accounts for almost half of the book’s length, felt like something special. King is so incredibly good at writing convincing child heroes who aren’t saccharinely precocious. The friendship between Bobby and Ted was beautiful and true, and I love that it was founded upon a love for of good fiction. The story delivered so many things, from nostalgia to sweetness to fear to sorrow to, at last, hope. It ties directly into the Dark Tower narrative, and even if the rest of the collection doesn’t end up blowing me away, reading this story made my picking up the book absolutely worth it. 5 solid stars. If you’re a fan of Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon, I feel like this story is worth your time. The childhood nostalgia was excellently captured.
Hearts in Atlantis:
I find it amazing that King can take an idea as simple as a college dorm’s collective addiction to a card game and make it a compelling story. But he did. I was astounded by how much I came to care about these boys and their struggles. Pete Riley was an incredibly compelling character, and I was really rooting for him to overcome his addictions and save himself from the draft that was killing so many boys at the time. I also really enjoyed seeing Carol again, in a completely different context.
This is an odd one. How long can the events of a childhood rule the life of an adult? We have a borderline dissociative identity disorder and selective blindness represented here, and the entire premise is a really weird one. It’s interesting how Carol Gerber has become a bit of a Shrodinger’s cat by this point in the narrative. I’m super curious what happened to her, and what caused her to make the decisions she’s made and get involved in the movements she was involved in.
Why We’re in Vietnam:
Again, this story hinges on a ripple effect, on how past events and acquaintances shape the course of a life. Here, all of the main players, from John Sullivan to Ronnie (the card-playing instigator from Hearts in Atlantis) to Blind Willy of the previous story, are all connected loosely by 2 things: Carol Gerber and the Vietnam War. It was interesting seeing more of Sullivan, since he was an important side character in Low Men in Yellow Coats as the third member of Bobby and Carol’s friend group, but that was really the only purpose his story served.
Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling:
This final story brings us back to Bobby, our protagonist in “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” It was nice to see how his life turned out, as the end of that first story left his fate a bit up in the air. We also get to learn a little bit more about what happened to Carol after “Hearts in Atlantis.” Both Bobby and Carol are very interesting characters, and I was happy that King returned to them in the end. And I really hope to see more of Ted further down the road to the Tower.
All in all, Hearts in Atlantis was a nostalgic, thought-provoking read. “Low Men in Yellow Coats” was incredible on its own, and reading it ended up being a very emotional experience. I can see how that central story could link in with the Dark Tower, and I’m very excited to see what actually comes to pass. There’s a movie of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins as Ted, and I bet he was absolutely amazing in the role. It’s definitely on my watch list.
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