January 2004

-bookslut

fiction

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Each new installment of The Dark Tower is a bit like tuning into an episode of Bonanza. The reader is guaranteed a casual, gripping yarn, with battles going down on the hardpan, the principals buoyed by a supporting cast emerging from batwings and escarpments to offer succor (only to abruptly die or disappear), and Eddie Dean's much-needed wisecracks. The Dark Tower books are a bit different from King's usual "scions of good against ultimate evil" template. But King, if anything, is self-aware of his "burger and fries" aesthetic. (To whit: One character in Calla is even described as "looking like Pa Cartwright.") Even so, character development, eked out so generously in The Stand, The Green Mile, and the underrated Eyes of the Dragon, has escaped King in these books. Unless, of course, you're willing to count psychic messages, intuition, and casual blurts of omniscient import as trusty surrogates.

This time around, King's prepared to give us more, albeit in snippets. Roland ages. Jake, not unlike Harry Potter, is on his way to being a man. Eddie Dean learns to keep his mouth shut at the right moments and, at one point, becomes something of a town politico. Even Oy, the obligatory mascot, has evolved beyond cutesy mimesis, now speaking in more complete phrases. But Susannah, carrying demon child, is given a psychological conundrum that trumps the implausible Detta/Odetta schizophrenia let loose in The Drawing of the Three. And while Father Callahan, the tortured alcoholic from Salem's Lot, is groomed as a possible new member of the ka-tet, he's been given little more than describing what happened to him between books.

To his credit, King's prefatory admonishment to read these suckers from the start is no mere marketing ploy. King reincorporates motifs and minor characters from the previous books that encourage us with the same tantalizing questions. What is the connection between Roland's world and our world? Will Roland betray the ka-tet? Sometimes, King's a bit overeager. Unless you're a febrile numerologist, you'll probably be very annoyed by the constant references to 19. At other times, he doesn't offer enough. The very literal reference to Look, Homeward Angel's opening phrase ("a stone, a leaf, an unfound door") and the mysterious rose in the Manhattan lot, are cast behind the same trusted shrouds. One reads with the promise all will be resolved and revealed in the next two books. But the way King's currently dishing out the dirt, he'll have to start slinging soil at an exponential rate.

You almost wonder if King himself really knows what's going on. 1977 New York makes a reappearance, but King is remarkably slipshod when it comes to time and place. AIDS is referenced in as a 1970s calamity, but the first reported case of AIDS/GRID was actually in 1981. A comparatively few 121 deaths occurred nationwide in the mid-1970s before it became a momentarily misunderstood epidemic. Manpower is omnipresent as a place to find day labor, but this too is questionable. The largest U.S. employer saw the beginnings of its unprecedented success in the 1980s. Ads for the television series Charlie's Angels can be found on buses, well before this type of advertising was de rigueur for blockbuster movies (and, as we're reminded explicitly in the book, before the release of Star Wars!). Fanny packs were a fashion fad in the early 1990s, not the 1970s. Red-eye's frequency in photographs, thrown in as a spooky adjunct, was aided in part by the rise of cheap cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s. These cheaply produced cameras were designed with the flash close to the lens, causing the angle of reflection to narrow and the resultant crimson retinae. When questioned about this last point, Susannah, who was pulled from 1964, is completely aware of red-eye and Roland remains silent, as if cognizant of cameras in his world.

Granted, one never comes to a King novel for accountability. But for a man who prided himself on finding "the truth within the lie" in his infamous National Book Awards speech, one wonders why the Grant editors failed to perform basic fact-checking for such a big-name author. Even the shifting details seen within the parallel worlds aren't nearly as much fun as they could be. The Dead Presidents (and the existing ones) may change their faces, but apparently King's never contemplated the comic value of inflation.

This time around, however, King is more confident with his Mid-World vernacular, probably because Wizard and Glass's flashback structure gave him the opportunity to get in touch, sans pop cultural references. "Thankya, sai"s and "singletons" run rampant through the prose. At one point, King even frames "commala" as an entry in the Random House unabridged dictionary. And, seemingly inspired by Rowling, there's a greater emphasis on clever names and places. Take the last two parts of Calla Bryn Sturgis, and you'll have a star and the director of The Magnificent Seven, one of many unsubtle references throughout the book.

Calla itself is a rustic wonderland with awkward items like the opoponax feather, but the product placement never stops (Duracell and Microsoft are just two remnants of the Old Ones). Still, one can always count on King for indelible Americana, such as the great image of a man dead "with a bag of McDonald's french fries in his lap." The titluar wolves, however, make one of the briefest appearances you'd expect from an antagonist, given that they're given a little more than 700 pages to wreak havoc.

But, despite its flaws, Calla, like most of King's books, delivers the goods to undiscriminating readers looking for a good time. It isn't his greatest book, but, thankfully, it's not The Tommyknockers. Still, you can't help but wonder if the first of this todash trio, much like the legal agreement protecting the rose, is the work of a man strangely obliged to produce, if only to appease his most feverish acolytes.

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
Scribner
ISBN: 1880418568
736 Pages