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HEARTS IN ATLANTIS: The Dream Submerged

Stephen King's latestis a literary triumph that should find an enthusiastic audience outside the genre.

By Denise Dumars     February 02, 2000

It's too bad the early 20th century already had a Lost Generation, for the older group of Baby Boomers could certainly use that moniker. Nowhere is that more clear than in Stephen King's latest literary venture, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, a series of interconnected tales that function better together as a novel than as stand-alone stories.
The first installment in this overview of the '60s generation begins, appropriately enough, in 1960. 'Low Men in Yellow Coats' concerns Bobby Garfield, a red-haired boy who looks too much like his deceased father for his mother's taste. He develops a friendship with a mysterious old man named Ted Brautigan. Ted introduces Bobby to the pleasures of literature while hiding out from the characters of the story's title: sinister supernatural entities who resemble gangsters from Roger Rabbit's Toontown and who come from, apparently, the same universe as King's Dark Tower series.
Bobby dreams of a new bike, but whether his mom is too poor or too miserly to buy him one makes no difference; he starts saving money to buy one himself, and finds work keeping an eye out for the 'low men' for Ted. Caught in a sordid situation, his mother is horribly victimized, and King perhaps makes a bad authorial decision when he has Bobby react in typical 'blame the victim' mode. Ted is ultimately caught by the low men; Bobby becomes a juvenile delinquent, and his mother gets her act together. It is story left unfinished until the last installment.
The second installment--and the first two are more like very long 'slice-of-life' stories than chapters or stand-alone tales--is called 'Hearts in Atlantis' and takes place in 1966. It's the era of unprecedented economic growth, the soap opera DARK SHADOWS, and the growing consciousness of the horrors of the undeclared war in Vietnam. Financial aid is available so that even poor students can go to college, and the tale is a first-person narrative by one of them, Pete Riley. Pete and his pals get swept up in gambling fever over the card game Hearts; many of them flunk out because they spend all their time at the game, and Pete very nearly does, too. In the process he has his consciousness about Vietnam expanded, loses his virginity, and meets a cast of characters that turn out like many in the headlines today: Gerry Spence, Ron Kovic, and Sara Jane Olson/Kathleen Soliah to name a few. In this story, the burden the '60s generation will carry looms like a dark cloud over the otherwise innocent--by today's standards--college students of the era. Reading the tale is a step into the Twilight-Zone-like era between the HAPPY DAYS '50s and the great social changes of the ate '60s.
It is at approximately this point in the novel that the supernatural takes a backseat to the issue of character and social change, and the book turns from being one of King's horror novels into a literary novel: the kind of Vietnam-era story that many of King's generation are writing. This particular example of that sub-genre reveals through character rather than polemics; in other words, it is a true literary treatment of the subject.
The stories that come after are much shorter. 'Blind Willie,' set in 1983, makes good use of the urban legend of the homeless man who is really a Yuppie gotten rich through panhandling. There's much symbolism of the hollow materialism of the '80s in this tale, which is possibly the most haunting (though not the most gut-wrenching) of the collection.
'Why We're in Vietnam,' set in 1999, is the horrifying story of a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. An atrocity committed in Vietnam by a character we first met in 'Hearts in Atlantis' has left his childhood acquaintance Sully-John haunted by an apparition who may be real or may be a symptom of PTSD; physically as well as psychically damaged in the war, as he is dying he literally sees the sky falling on him. We are left to wonder if it was real or just a vision during his heart attack. It is a disturbing and extremely well-wrought storyline.
The book ends with 'Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling,' also set in 1999. We come back to the story of Bobby Garfield. The tale begins at Sully-John's funeral, where many childhood friends (and Vietnam survivors) are reunited, including the elusive Carol Gerber, the Kathleen Soliah-like character from 'Hearts in Atlantis.' Even old Ted Brautigan makes his presence known, so perhaps the low men haven't vanquished him after all. Garfield has gotten his life together, and the book ends with the bittersweet nostalgia evoked by the song of the story's title.
'Love plus Peace equals Information' is the code graffito of the novel, and its reference to the 1960s show THE PRISONER are not accidental. Each of the characters in the book is, after all, a prisoner of the memories of the era each has lived through. HEARTS IN ATLANTIS is a literary triumph that should find an enthusiastic readership far beyond the boundaries of genre.

HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, written by Stephen King. Scribner, September 1999. 523 pages. $28.00

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