8.29.2012

King's Highway pt. 30: The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower pt. 2)

Welcome to Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve! Easily accessible from all points of the King's Highway and strewn over many miles of primary and secondary texts, the DTNPWR offers visitors a truly unique hiking experience. We hope you enjoy your visit. Follow all trail markers and do not stray from the path. Beware the Lobstrosities; beware the Taheen. For a free road map or to follow along at home, see here.

For the duration of our stay in the Dark Tower mythos, we will observe the following trail-guide format: Overview / What You'll See/ Whom You'll Meet / Trail Difficulty / Scenic View / Trail Notes.


OVERVIEW

The story begins only a few hours after the conclusion of The Gunslinger. Roland finds himself immediately attacked by lobster/scorpion creatures he dubs "lobstrosities" that emerge from the Western Sea. (More on them below) It then... (as excerpted from here) "transports readers along as Roland, facing imminent death, discovers a series of three doors standing freely on the beach. Passing through each of them in succession, Roland enters our world and sets about "drawing" the people who are destined to join him on his Tower quest. From late-1980s New York, as seen through the eyes of a heroin-addled young man named Eddie Dean; to the Manhattan of the early-1960s, where the schizophrenic, wheelchair-bound civil-rights activist Odetta Holmes awaits; to mid-1970s New York, where an icy serial killer named Jack Mort plots his next murder, Roland performs his drawing of the three (though it proves not to be the threesome that Roland, or readers, has expected."

Credit: the_dark_tower___the_western_sea_by_michalz00-d4rk7qh
"Among the themes grappled with by the characters are racism, feminism and gender roles, obsessive sociopaths, psychogenic fugues, substance abuse, and philosophic determinism (a pivotal theme throughout the series). The resolutions, when they come, are as unexpected as Roland's crippling wounds in the prologue, the ending as satisfying in its romantic ambivalence as the first book's conclusion." (As excerpted from here.)

Before starting these, I'd been warned the first book wasn't all that great and that if I wasn't drawn into the story by 100 pages or so into this one that I might as well give up. I admit, it took a little longer than the first 100 pages for me to warm to the material, but once it "clicked," I breathed a sigh of relief. I'm committed to getting through not just all the Dark Towers but the entire King catalog, so I would've continued either way, but I didn't want to read all these "just to read them." Somewhere around the opening of the third door, I found myself wholly immersed in the story and characters.

WHAT YOU'LL SEE

The landscape of The Drawing of the Three is primarily New York City, albeit the NYC of three different decades, inter-cut with that stretch of beach along the Western Sea.

1964 Times Square. It's too bad there wasn't a section in the 90s, so someone could comment on the Disneyfication of the area:

WHOM YOU'LL MEET

Some very important characters are introduced here... "This is the very first introduction to a concept known as ka-tet: a group of otherwise disparate individuals whose destinies become bound together by fate and common purpose. Essentially, Roland is meeting those who will form his ka-tet for the purpose of reaching the Dark Tower... It's the coming together of separate entities to make a whole. Separate, each is but a shadow of the other - and even dangerous. But together, the union is glorious. It's the same thing for Roland and his ka-tet. Separate, he, Eddie, and Susannah each had their strengths and weaknesses. Now, joined together through ka, they are something much more." (As excerpted from here.)

The interior illustrations are by Phil Hale. Google-image search him; you won't be disappointed.
Roland's ka-tet is not quite complete, as we shall see in The Waste Lands, but we are introduced to two of its principal members: Eddie Dean (first as the heroin-addicted first-time drug mule, then as the pop-culture-referencing wiseacre - familiar to many a King story - of the rest of the story) and Odetta Holmes (first as a schizophrenic who switches between sweet Odetta and crazy-hateful Detta, then as the fused "Susannah" of the rest of the series.)

We also meet (via flashback and interior monologue) Eddie's brother Henry, as well as Jack Mort (the third of the three draws), some gangsters and cops (the scene with the cops/ pharmacy at the end is a lot of fun) and the lobstrosities:

Their dialogue consists only of 'Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-check? Did-a-chick?' Although poisonous, they are edible, and our heroes dine on lobstrosity burritos galore, throughout. (Illustration credit: Phil Hale again)
That "Dad-a-chum?" business got stuck in my head but good. The next time I'm at a lobster tank, I plan on putting my face to the glass and repeating it a dozen or so times to see if there's any reaction.

The ka-tet concept ("one from many" or "sharing the same destiny") reminded me both of Vonnegut's similarly-named karass and of Elric again, on those occasions where he banded together with his Eternal Champion counterparts to become "the three who were one" in Sailor on the Seas of Fate and The Vanishing Tower. I'm really curious if Elric was an inspiration for King. As stated elsewhere, certain ideas seem to suggest certain other ideas, so it's entirely possible he hasn't, or hadn't when writing these.

One last thing: King deserves credit for juggling both Odetta's 1960s sensibilities and Roland's stranger-in-a-strange-land observations re: planes/ our world. In particular, his delight at the guns 'n' ammo store cracked me up. As well as:

“Roland could not understand why anyone would want cocaine or any other illegal drug, for that matter, in a world where such a powerful one as sugar was so plentiful and cheap.”

TRAIL DIFFICULTY

While this is quite a readable book, it has two sticking points on which I must comment, both of which involve the character of Odetta/ Detta.

Quite like this one, from here.
When the narrative turns over to Detta's point of view, it goes a little off the rails. A bit cringeworthy in spots, and I can see this being a bridge too far for some readers. King addresses this in the narrative itself in this following section:

“I can only understand about one word in every ten she says,” Roland tells Eddie, who says he can get two of every three but it really only comes back to honky mahfah. “Do many of the dark-skinned people talk that way where you come from?” Roland asks, to which Eddie responds, “No... it’s not real. It’s not real and she doesn’t even know it... She’s a pretty good actress...She sounds like a cross between the darkies in this book called Mandingo I read once and Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. I know you don’t know those names, but what I mean is she talks like a cliche.”

This, of course, shields King from any accusations that her dialogue is cartoonish, etc. I'm not sure if it's enough of a peg to hang it on, (I should mention Eddie isn't the most p.c. character, so his use of "darkies" - and, elsewhere, "crip spaces" in place of handicapped parking - is not done out of carelessness by the author but deliberate characterization, in case you saw that and started writing me an angry letter) but as Suzanne Johnson over at Tor.com writes in her ongoing read-through of The Dark Tower: "So, Eddie and Roland realize Detta is a cartoon character, a cliche. I could look for deep, dark meaning here and wander in literary hellholes, uh, I mean mazes. But really, it might be that in Odetta’s mind, which is where Detta was born, the cartoon woman is the only kind of “opposite” Odetta herself knows. She grew up rich and privileged, so a cartoon urban black woman is probably all she had to base her alter on. Might be as simple as that. Or not."

It's a tricky situation and one I frankly was happy to see disappear once her personalities were fused into "Susannah Dean." But it got me thinking. Hell, I work with a couple of folks who speak and act even more cartoonishly, and it's not like King (or any white male writer) is generating their dialogue. If I transcribed their daily remarks and concerns faithfully, people would accuse me of indulging in the most unexamined-racial-cliches imaginable and I have no doubt I'd be vilified and trolled by all sorts of furiously-well-meaning liberals and activists. All I'm saying is, on this topic, perhaps there is room for a wider discussion on self-determined identity, but perhaps Detta Holmes isn't the greatest starting point. Perhaps she is - I'll leave this one for the experts to sort out.

I was pretty impressed with Phil Hale's illustrations throughout. Here's Detta with Eddie standing behind her.
The other Trail Difficulty is the love-at-first-sight-ness between Eddie and Odetta. It just doesn't come across as very believable. I shrugged through it, and I didn't hate it (nor will I say it presents anything insurmountable in enjoying the read) but yeah... it's a bit sudden and a bit "what now?" as it develops. I like both characters, though, and (although this makes it sound like I think they're real people or something; I should mention, if they were, I wouldn't ask twice/ none of my business) I'm happy for them. They meet in emotionally compromised circumstances, after all, and perhaps that's all the explanation one needs.

As the man himself writes: “He was a romantic in his own harsh way…yet he was also realist enough to know that some times love actually did conquer all.”

SCENIC VIEW


I found these images at Deviant Art.com; all copyright the respective artist.

TRAIL NOTES

If I have a criticism of King's writing it's that he too often falls in love with certain phrases or terms and over-uses them. He's not as egregious an offender in this regard as George "Rape Rape" Martin (you know nothing Jon Snow) whose maddeningly repetitive and meandering style almost literally drove me insane, but King can sometimes go overboard. (Count how many times Wireman says "muchacho" in Duma Key, or the amount of "Beep Beep, Ritchie"s in It.) Here, we are treated to too-many "Honk Mahfah"s, too many "Mortcypedia"s, and too many "That Great Sage and Eminent Junkie"s for my personal taste.

But, I'm picky in this regard, perhaps pickier than most. I wasn't unduly distracted by their use / over-use here, but it was just enough to make me sigh.

I'm sure Stephen King is kicking himself for making me sigh and is composing an open letter of apology right now.

“Fault always lies in the same place, my fine babies: with him weak enough to lay blame.”

NEXT!
We take a trip to Six Flaggs with The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon!

7 comments:

  1. Too many "honk mahfahs"?!? Not possible!

    I think you are dead-on-the-money in your criticisms here, especially the rapidity of Eddie and Odetta's love affair. King has never quite managed to master the telling of a love story, although he's made valiant attempts (Wizard and Glass, Bag of Bones). Ultimately, it doesn't work, but I don't much mind it because it doesn't hurt the later books.

    Properly visualized, this novel will make a GREAT movie someday. It's a novel where it almost seems like nothing happens, until you begin to examine the pace, and realize that the tension level starts out high and only builds as it goes along (with the occasional "shuffle" break, of course).

    I'd give my left nut to see a truly excellent version of the sections in which Roland is inhabiting Mort's body, ripping out gunshops and pharmacies and whatnot.

    Seriously: my left nut. Honestly, I'm not using it much, so Hollywood, don't pass up a good deal when it's on the table!

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    1. I wonder how the novel will fare as a film? Done properly, it could be as successful as the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings franchise. Or am I crazy?

      I hope ZZ Top gets to play some Dark-Tower-version of themselves. I've had "Velcro Fly" in my head since finishing The Waste Lands.

      I'm about halfway through Wizard and Glass at the moment and have been touched by the love story therein. He's a sensitive guy, our man King, but I agree, sometimes the love story side of his stories just don't ignite the way other things do.

      Oh, and I immediately thought "Bryant won't like that Honk Mahfah line..." when I hit "publish." :-)

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  2. By an odd coincidence, I recognized the name Odetta Holmes because of a commercial running currently for Southern Comfort. Her song "Hit or Miss" is featured in it. Is the Odetta in these books an alternate-universe version? It seems she has to be, given that the real Odetta was, indeed, and activist.

    Anyway, quite a pair of back-to-back posts. I like your style of discussion here.

    I'm mildly surprised someone hasn't produced a roleplaying game for the setting of these books.

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    1. I'm familiar with Odetta the folk singer in a passing way (I'm a big Bob Dylan fan, and she did some fine Dylan covers), but I had no idea her last name was Holmes!

      I'd say one of two things is the case here: (1) King was offering a little tip of the hat or (2) King knew somewhere in the back of his mind that her name was Odetta Holmes, but forgot it, and then when he was naming his character named her that thinking he was just inventing a nice-sounding name.

      My money is on #2. I don't think there is any chance she is actually supposed to BE the folk singer in any way, but you never know.

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    2. That's a great insight, JB - thanks for that. I wonder...?

      Considering the use of "Hey Jude" and "Velcro Fly" in Mid-World, anything is possible. Maybe they're twinners. I imagine he would have mentioned it somewhere along the way if so, but I think BB's first possibility is the case here.

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    3. It's also worth pointing out -- to continue the Odetta/Bob Dylan connection -- that one of Dylan's most prominent early songs was "Oxford Town," which gets a bit of a shout-out in the novel. To the best of my knowledge, Odetta never recorded it, but it's almost certainly something she would have performed live a time or two.

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