"LOW MEN! (ben-brrn-nrr, nnn-nrn-nrrnw)
"THEY IN YELLOW COATS!" (ben-brrn-nrr, nnn-nrn-nrrnw)
I'll trust you know the plot and characters, so let's just jump into it.
WHAT A COOL TITLE
One of my faves from King. I think it struck me as awkward at first but it grew one me and now I love the way it sounds/ the mood it envokes/ as conceptual envelope for the story. Ted leaves a note for Bobby in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men that speaks to the title's effectiveness for the themes in play:
"'Guys like us?' George says when he tells Lennie the story Lennie always wants to hear. Who are guys like us? Who were they to Steinbeck? Who are they to us? Ask yourself this."
Without hitting it too hard on the head, who are the low men in yellow coats? Mr. Biderman and the St. Gabe boys? Who are they to Liz Garfield? Who are they to you?
While we're here, I don't really like the title Hearts in Atlantis. It's okay, it's just kind of awkward and that one did the opposite of grow on me. Every time I turn it over in mind, it gets worse and not better. I'll save my thoughts on the movie until the very end, but it commits two avoidable offenses by keeping both titles/ ideas in play but jettisoning all the context that King gives them in the book. So, you have low men in yellow coats who are turned into mere g-men, despite no g-men in the history either wearing flashy yellow coats or parading around in loud cars that ate people, and "Atlantis" is turned into a term for childhood, instead of the 60s/Donovan context King meant to evoke with the title.
THE LOW MEN
I love how Ted uses examples from literature to impart lessons and useful metaphors to Bobby. This is why canon matters, people! Given King's obvious views on the subject - or at least Ted Brautigan's, former editor of the Harvard Crimson, class of 1920 - I wish he'd be as vocal about the decimation of canon in English Literature courses (talk about Beam Breaking!) as he is about all the other crap he tweets about.
Anyway, the Low Men/ Taheen never come off as sensible to me elsewhere. I just don't get what they are or what they do. They started off in King's imagination, somewhat obviously, as the sort of orc/ goblin hybrid Sarumon makes for Sauron in LOTR, but they grow in their own, weird, pimple-pop-and-eating direction in the Dark Tower books. Here, though, they're handled exactly as they should be: malevolent, mysterious, but graspable. They give great ambiance. All the stuff with the missing cat posters and the town whistle going off and the envelopes slid under the door and voices like throats-full-of-crickets was great. And that scene toward the end of this one where Bobby's desire to save Ted is turned into painful knowledge of his own overriding self-preservation is just great drama. Kudos all around.
I'm not quite sure I really understand how the posters work, but I'm sure it's on the same unconscious level as the whirly mirks and sankofites from "Everything's Eventual." I like how their touch - sort of like the Black Riders from LOTR - imparts a little psionic sight, too, just as Ted's does. "But who would want to look through such a window? Who would want to see the tall, red-lipped scissor shapes as they really were?"
NOSTALGIA AND CHILDHOOD
The story is told from the POV of childhood, so a lack of thorough explanations and sudden swings from safety to terror to confusion to bliss are part of that landscape. The adults have their own lives which are impenetrable to Bobby; the mysteries that he registers - both from the adults and his peers (and from beyond time and space, not to mention from literature) - are always just beyond the edge of childhood understanding. (Just as the mysteries of older Carol and Stokely Jones work on the main character's unconscious in the novella "Hearts in Atlantis.")
I saw a few reviews on Goodreads saying King pumped up the nostalgia a little too much.
|I think they might've been referring more to the movie than the novella, but okay.|
But the 50s (that "last June of the Eisenhower administration") WERE different. Undeniably, in so many fundamental ways. Movie theaters WERE palaces, soda pop WAS creamier and tastier, dollars DID go further - much, much farther. Accentuating these things isn't an exaggeration, any more than accentuating the darker elements is an exaggeration (all the Liz Garfields and Mr. Biderman-and-his-friends' out there, protected by the decade's pillar-of-trust in men in positions of authority, or their offspring, who might beat a girl with baseball bats for the hell of it and get away with it - well, WOULD have gotten away with it - scot free) is ill-considered. It's the mix of the two that gives "Low Men in Yellow Coats" much of its power.
And here's Ted, a man out of his time in so many ways, who sees things others cannot, who knows things he cannot impart to Bobby outside of hints and recommended windows of approach to movies and literature. What part does such a character play in this nostalgia? His clairvoyance and empathy give him a unique view into the events (and decade) around him. Fascinating stuff.
OPTICS OF PEDOPHILIA
In The Gunslinger, when Roland first meets Jake at the way station, he takes him inside and lays him down on the bed and removes his shirt and then hypnotizes him. There's nothing sexually suggestive about this, but King wrote it in a less looking-for-such-optics age, and there's a bit of a creepy factor reading it in 2019. I want to stress: I don't think there is a creepy factor, just the optics of one. There's a similar scene in Salem's Lot and a few other places. My point: King did not seem aware or concerned about such optics when he wrote these scenes in the 70s.
By the 90s, though - and especially amidst the "feminist phase" from which Hearts in Atlantis sprang - King was not just aware of them, he was wielding them such as he does here. The optics of Ted's whole relationship with Bobby and Carol are of course terrible. When Liz comes home (after everything she's been through) and finds Carol in Ted's lap with her shirt removed and Bobby's belt in his mouth, I mean, good lord. It ain't good. Yet we the reader know how unfair everything that happens is.
Similarly, throughout the story, when Bobby is wondering about Ted's touch and "what if he touches me that way again?" and all the "I love you"s back and forth, we the reader know what it all means and the missing-Dad aspect, etc. But anyone wandering into the room, so to speak, would be like uh, what the hell am I reading here? I bring all this up because King teases these things masterfully. There is no aspect of this text that got away from him or he's unaware of: all things, again, serve the Beam.
LITERATURE AND TV ASSOCIATIONS
Hawaiian Eye gets mentioned a few times. I thought maybe this was an alternate-level-of-the-Tower version of Hawaii 5-0, but nope it's a real show. Never saw or heard of it before.
I've mentioned how books (and the eternal objects of meditation they are) are used to effectively comment on or provide some unable-to-otherwise-impart guidance (particularly Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors) from Ted to Bobby. Knowing the future, Ted knows Bobby and Carol both have a tough road to walk, and he can only say so much. I like this method.
I threw in the movie Day of the Triffids since it's mentioned in the story. It's a perfectly acceptable example of this kind of early sci-fi, but I couldn't quite find my way into the material. There is, though, one really uncomfortable scene where one of the blind adults blatantly (and lasciviously) tries to kidnap a girl of no older than 12. It's rather shocking, especially for its era: his intent in kidnapping her is absolutely, uncomfortably clear. Considering the symbolic implications of this story and the optics under discussion, I wonder if it stayed in King's mind? Like a sankofite or a whirly mirk.
One last thing: to avoid psionic detection by the Low Men, Ted and Bobby have to "take their minds away," i.e. hide behind some powerful mental image. In one scene after watching Village of the Damned, where the protagonist has to hide behind just such a mental wall, Bobby mentally retreats behind the famous movie poster of Brigitte Bardot that scandalized/ seduced Europe and beyond during the 1950s. Along the lines of the above (though less creepily) I wonder if King can close his eyes and remember every detail of that poster and staring at it as a boy on the precipice of sex/ all the adult mysteries. Possibly. I'm sure for men of his generation, he's not alone. (My own version is probably an Elvira moonbathing poster. Which might be less accessible to a mass audience than King's example. But there again is the difference between the 50s and the 80s: kids growing up later had access to sexual imagery and "the adult mysteries" via thousands of entry points. Kids in the 50s, considerably less.)
DARK TOWER CONNECTIONS
Well, there's the Low Men connections, obviously. And all that Dark Tower tie-in dialogue Ted has with them before he's sent back to Thunderclap must have been really something for the contemporaneous Dark Tower reader. It might've seemed kind of opaque to non-DT-readers of the period, but it's kind of cool either way.
The coda ties together the other stories of the book. If this were a standalone novella and not one organic part of the Hearts in Atlantis whole, it'd probably have been reworked a bit. Ted's off-camera appearance at the end of "Low Coats" (sending Bobby a Dark-Tower-glitterbomb, i.e. an envelope full of rose pedals) is recalled in the very last story ("Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling"), which ties up the Bobby and Carol story. Ted sends Carol the baseball glove and the title page of Lord of the Flies with a note for her telling her, essentially, to go for it with Bobby. A matchmaker from beyond, our Ted Brautigan! It's a nice storybook ending for the cast of that book and hope they lived happily ever after.
Also, amidst the books Ted discusses with Bobby is Clifford Simak's Ring Around the Sun.
“'In this book,' he said, 'Mr. Simak postulates the idea that there are a number of worlds like ours. Not other planets but other Earths, parallel Earths, in a kind of ring around the sun.'"
DARK TOWER TWINNING / MOTHER SUBPLOT
I've teased a Dark Tower theory a few times - just some thoughts I have about what the series is actually about/ what it really does - and I promise I'll share more on this next time. But an aspect of the series is definitely Roland's needing to come to terms with his matricide. It's handled well in the main books, but it is only truly reconciled (and so heart-renderingly) in The Wind Through The Keyhole.
It's no accident this is such an important part of the series. So much of the subtext of the series is King coming to terms with his past, and part of that past is Ruth King. It's blown up large to matricide in his meta-fictive exploration of his life, but sticking only to the characters and not the author (for now) there's a certain "twinning" aspect here with Bobby and Jake. King makes the connection explicit in bk 7 when Ted appears again, but each child in the series (be it Patrick - easily the least successful of them all - or Tim Stoutheart) deals very pointedly with a child who does not receive the love from their parent/ absent Dad that they need and gets it via another father figure.
I don't suggest that the Liz/ Bobby story perfectly parallels the young Steve King childhood story, only that he might know a little something about the type of childhood Bobby had. Even if only from reading/ projecting/ imagining. "To be loved just a little, and needing to protect the love that remained" is such a big motivating factor, not just for Bobby, but in life, for so many people.
Once more: "Guys like us, Bobby - Who are guys like us?"
SOME LAST THOUGHTS
- I've often wondered how King's work would be received if he gave his other non-Caucasian characters the same weird verbal tics he give his African-American ones. We get a less-than-thrilling glimpse of that here, with the Latino gang member who saves young Bobby. ("You one dead putino, tio mio...")
- King's weird thing with telepathy, again. I mean, I can't imagine this story without it - it's all used very well/ written very effectively and very much the point of so much Dark Tower stuff. But it is kind of amazing how it just seeps in to everything he writes and unfolds so similarly. I remember a poet I had to read in college and how she eventually was writing about jars of her child's urine around her home and my professor (a radical feminist poet so not someone criticizing from an unsympathetic position) saying "I mean sometimes you have to look beyond the living room for inspiration, you know?" I feel the same with King's telepathy. It fascinates him, he uses it well (if more or less the same exact way each time), but enough should have really been enough long, long ago.
- Given Ted's situation, it goes to show another theme of King's work in general: serving the Beam means serving others. That is salvation; ka-tet is salvation. Those who serve themselves usually end up on the wrong side of a King morality tale, even if they enjoy temporary successes. This is actually a very old theme isn't it? Perhaps the oldest of all: character is downfall. All your plans and scheming come to naught if your character is, ultimately, self-serving.
Wish this sort of stuff came up at election time. But hey.
One of the best novellas of King's career, for sure. Might even be the most successful of all the Dark Tower tie-ins, perhaps even including the main books themselves. On a short list of works where King nailed "it" - however you define it - this should be there.
I watched the movie again and boy, what a letdown from the novella. Perfectly cast and the nostalgia is real but sheesh: what a messy translation from page to screen. Robbing it of its Dark Tower content makes it all much less clear (weirdly enough - I can imagine the decision being made to do that to try and make it less confusing to a non-Dark-Tower audience, but it just muddles things). And the ending story already was a stretch with Bobby and Carol reuniting, but excising adult Carol from the end of the movie and having adult Bobby reconcile with Carol's daughter? Terrible. How do these decisions get made? How on earth is that better/ more sensible?
I hope for the sake of symmetry, though, someone makes a movie of the title novella and transcribes it bafflingly, as well. Like, set it in the 80s or something, and end with Peter looking back in 2019 with a MAGA hat or something.
|"Peace + Love = INFORMATION."|
~ "Bobby didn't like the world much after a really good movie in any case; for a little while it felt like an unfair joke, full of people with dull eyes, small plans, and facial blemishes. He sometimes thought if the world had a plot, it would be so much better."