King's Highway pt. 41: Hearts in Atlantis

"Adulthood is accretive in nature, a thing which 
arrives in ragged stages and uneven overlaps."

The NY Times review of this book (two novellas, two short stories, and an epilogue - all interconnected) isn't all that glowing, but it nails one important theme: "This book is about survivor's guilt." I think that's fair. Surviving the 60s, surviving childhood, surviving Vietnam, even, ultimately, surviving the survivor's guilt. It belongs to a grand tradition of literature, that of an author / culture reconciling present with past.

Roger Ebert's review of the film adaptation goes a bit further: "The movie ends as childhood ends, in disillusionment at the real world that lies ahead." True of the film and an apt summary of "Low Men in Yellow Coats," the first story in the book and the one that is not-quite-successfully adapted to the screen. More on the movie in a bit.

The plot: Bobby Garfield, a boy on the cusp of adolescence, deals with the loss of his father and the stilted affection of his mother. He pals around with his friend Sully-John and his girlfriend/first love, Carol Gerber. Ted Brautigan, a stranger with psychic-insight moves in upstairs, and Bobby learns he is on the run from the low men of the title. He keeps an eye out for them but fails to report what he sees in a timely fashion. (The low men's arrival is announced via "lost cat" fliers on telephone poles and strange symbols on the sidewalk - symbols that bear a pointed resemblance to the ones that accompany Dinky Earnshaw's "poison pen letters" from "Everything's Eventual.") Hi-jinks ensue, as they often do, the low men get their man, and Bobby is left to deal with the changes within himself in their wake. Years later, Bobby receives an envelope from (he presumes - who else could it be?) Ted, which contains brilliant red rose petals.

I'm skipping lots, obviously, but that's more or less the deal. 

"Low Men in Yellow Coats," one of my favorite King titles, right up there with "The Road Virus Heads North," is perhaps even more successful than "The Body" or other King stories that deal with the same time period in recreating it. Quoting Mr. Ebert again: "...the period is recreated through an intense memory of cars, radio shows, clothes, baseball mitts--material treasures in an uncertain world."
It uses William Golding's Lord of the Flies (a book I - like many other kids, I imagine - discovered at the same age as Bobby Garfield does in the story) as a motif throughout, and quite effectively. Ditto for Village of the Damned, a film which, as readers of Danse Macabre know, looms large in Mr. King's imagination.

"Low Men" is the only story here that evokes the Dark Tower. Ted is a "Breaker," one of those supernaturally-gifted few whom the Crimson King seeks to corral in his Crimson Quest to "break" The Beam. Ted's powers aren't defined exactly - psionic? empathic? a bit of both - but like John Coffey, physical contact transfers some of this power to those he touches. He hugs Bobby at one point, and Bobby receives a vision of a spinning top that contains all reality. "...Except it wasn't a top, and even as the image of the dream began to break up and go dark, Bobby knew it. It wasn't a top but a tower, a still spindle upon which all existence moved and spun. Then, it was gone, and for a little while there was a merciful nothingness. When he opened his eyes, his bedroom was full of sunshine on a Thursday morning in the last June of the Eisenhower Presidency."

Low Men in Yellow Coats, by Vincent Chong, from Stephen King Goes to the Movies.

I'm torn between nominating "Low Men" and the title-story as the best of the five stories, here. Both are knock-your-socks-off great. But if there is a "heart" of the novel (besides survivor's guilt), it lies in something Carol Gerber says in the latter... And it would've been helpful had I written it down... or had the book handy, but all I have are my notes, verdammt. But it's along the lines of "It just isn't right to bully the weak, and the bullies must know they can't get away with it." It's a theme SK returns to often, God bless him, and one I wish we all would keep firmly affixed in mind as we navigate this messy vector of space-time called 2012. May seem trite, but King has a way of evoking this simple truth in surprising ways, and they almost always hit me in the gut.

"Hearts in Atlantis" details one eye-opening semester in the lives of scholarship students at the University of Maine. Pete Ripley is the main character here, but Carol re-appears as his love interest / trigger to greater-social-awareness. (Carol's boyfriend from back home, Sully-John from "Low Men," gets the heave-ho) Actually, all the characters trigger this rise-in-consciousness in one way or another for Pete, but his relationship with Carol - quite movingly portrayed - is as important as catalyst/metaphor as the endless game of Hearts that consumes all the inhabitants of Pete's dorm.

It's this card game that supplies one-half of the story's title; the above supplies the other half. Says Pete at the story's beginning, "The older I get the harder it is to let go of the song's stupidity and hold on to its sweetness. I have to remind myself that we were smaller then, small enough to live out brightly-hued lives under the mushrooms, all the time believing them to be trees, shelter from the sheltering sky."

I imagine I wasn't the only reader who saw so many elements of his/her own dorm experience reflected in Pete's. We didn't play Hearts at Tucker Hall at URI in '92 but an endless game of High-Low Jack or Risk. (This last one is known by many different names, but Risk is what we called it, and risk is what we ran, blowing off so many damn classes to play it.) And if my own defining song was "So Whatcha' Want" by the Beastie Boys instead of "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians, (or "Twilight Time" by the Platters, a song I listen to a whole lot in 2012 and one I wish as traveling with the Voyager probe on its interstellar journey, to show unknown civilizations the beautiful, non-genocidal things of which our species is capable) it doesn't matter too much; the underlying experience and the misty-memories that accompany such imprinting-songs are the important thing. Like King says, "I know that doesn't make sense, but Hail Atlantis." Indeed.

"Anything with the power to make you laugh over thirty years later isn't a waste of time. I think something like that is close to immortality."

Pete survives the semester. The main instigator of the Hearts game, Ronnie, does not. (As we learn in a subsequent story, he goes off to Vietnam.) At the end of the novella, Pete reunites with one of his dorm-mates, Skip, as an adult. From the wiki: "Skip has become a well-known if controversial artist, and they reminisce about how they had such great ideals, and how they failed to live up to those ideals. Skip consoles him with the fervent, 'We TRIED.'" Amen, brother.

Another motif of this novella, the "We want... information..." bit from the TV show The Prisoner, still among the most challenging series ever aired.

My least favorite story here is the next, "Blind Willie." I'm just not exactly sure what's going on here. The plot: Willie Shearman - one of the three boys who assaulted Carol as a kid in "Low Men" - grew up to go to Vietnam, where he was witness to a My-Lai-style massacre (instigated/ egged-on by none other than Ronnie, that trash-talking spaz from the Hearts game in the title story, and, incidentally, where he saved none other than Sully-John's life).

These two events - the massacre and his participation in the assault on Carol - haunt Willie; let's turn it over to the great-and-all-powerful-wiki: "we then discover that he elaborately disguises himself as a blind beggar. It is not an act, however, as he appears to have a somatoform disorder and becomes blind every afternoon at the time of day he was caught in a firefight and temporarily blinded...Willie keeps a scrapbook about Carol Gerber. He has never forgotten the day that she was beaten up by Harry Doolin while he and Richie O'Meara held her down, and views his blindness as a form of penance."

I'm not saying it's a bad story - it holds you start-to-finish - just that it requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than perhaps it should. For example, Willie rents two offices in New York City, which is a tough enough feat for an actual business, and they are just decoys for his Blind Willie act. Also, we don't learn exactly how much he makes begging, but it's tough to reconcile his act of penance with the hint that he takes in at least a grand a day. Then again, perhaps that's the point of it: false penance, the lies we tell ourselves... "None are so blind as those who won't see," or something.

The next story, "Why We're in Vietnam" is a doozy. Here we reconnect with Sully-John, now John Sullivan, an injured vet attending the funeral of one of his fellow vets and haunted by the events of the aforementioned massacre in the form of Mama-san, a ghost of the woman that Ronnie murdered.

I can understand if some take issue with King's writing a first-person-narrative account of something like this (in my head, I can hear a cacophony, here, from the old joke "How many Vietnam Vets does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: You weren't THERE, man! to more serious charges of appropriation/ what-does-some-college-kid-who-didn't-serve-know-about-what-it-was-like, etc.) but I just want to say, as both a fairly-well-read (by no means an expert, just saying, it's been an ongoing avocation for many years) student of military history, Vietnam memoirs/ documentaries, anti-Vietnam-war literature from Howard Zinn to Thich Nan Hanh, and 60s counter-culture in general, I sincerely and unreservedly applaud his work, here. It actually comes across a hell of a lot better than some of the actual first-hand accounts I've read. Like he said about the Holocaust when criticized for writing about it in "Apt Pupil," Writing is an act of willed understanding.

Of course, I write this as only the son of a vet and not a former member of any armed services - or even unarmed services - so there's my grain of salt.

Anyway, the story of Vietnam is perhaps the real boogeyman of Hearts in Atlantis, and after getting to the end, I was sincerely in awe of King's ability to weave such a tale, particularly one that connects unambiguously to the Dark Tower. Not for the first or the last time, chapeau, Sai King. (Even if "Blind Willie" didn't really do it for me.)

"Why We're in Vietnam" ends with the wonderfully surreal touch of John Sullivan's heart attack in traffic, as experienced by him as a rain of objects from the sky and ending with the pain-erasing embrace of Mama-san. Tears were shed. (Sometimes that's not much of a feat, I grant you, but "in the interests of full disclosure.")

Among those objects is Bobby Garfield's baseball glove, stolen by Willie Sherman (aka Blind Willie) and which figures into the quickie-epilogue of the novel, "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," where Bobby and Carol are reunited as adults at John Sullivan's funeral. And, curtain. Twilight Time. 
Now, as for the movie...

It's not terrible, but it's not a true adaptation of the book. It adapts only "Low Men in Coats" and "Heavenly Shades of Night" (and unevenly on both) but for some reason keeps the title of "Hearts of Atlantis." Which makes no damn sense in context of the movie. True, they give Anthony Hopkins (Ted) the line about childhood being like the lost continent of Atlantis, but that barely covers it. Ebert liked it more than the NY Times did, but in this case, I'll agree with the Times review: "I would describe Hearts in Atlantis as emotional pornography, except that the film conveys no genuine emotion. And where pornography offers a release, the only responses the movie elicits are twinges of acute embarrassment. "

Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh - I didn't feel embarrassed, per se - but given Forrest Gump or Hearts, I'd choose Forrest Gump.

I'd like to end here with this bit from the afterword to Bag of Bones, where King discusses the genesis of this novel, as interspersed with a few more images from the movie:

"Hearts in Atlantis... unlocked something in me that has been waiting patiently to find expression for thirty years or more. I was a child of the 60s, a child of Vietnam, as well, and have all through my career wished I could write about those times and those events... I wanted, in short, to write about my own generation - what writer does not? - but felt that if I tried, I would make a miserable hash of it. I wasn't able to imagine, for instance, writing a story in which a character flashed the peace sign or said 'Hey... groovy!'

"Of Los Angeles, Gertrude Stein said, 'There is no there there.' That's how I feel about the 60s, when the consciousness of my generation was really formed and about the years after the 60s when we won our few victories and suffered our many appalling defeats... I have seen some of the best writers of my own (generation) try to write about the so-called Baby Boomers and produce nothing but bad karma laced with platitudes.

"...I began to see a way I might be able to write about what we almost had, what we lost, and what we finally ended up with, and how to do it without preaching. I hate preaching in stories, what someone (it might have been Robert Bloch) called 'selling your birthright for a plot of message.'" 

"If you came later, Hearts in Atlantis might explain a little bit about just what we were and why we turned out the way we did."

"Peace, dude."

Unfortunate-2016-Edit: R.I.P. Anton Yelchin.



  1. My Dad apparently missed going to Vietnam only barely; he was in the Marines, but never got deployed. Good thing, too, cause otherwise, I probably wouldn't have ended up being born!

    I think Hearts In Atlantis is pretty damn great, all things considered. It's a little frustrating that it has such a huge Dark Tower connection; it feels a bit as if that might have limited the audience for it, and it certainly hurt the movie version. However, for people like us, who are taking the full King journey, I think it probably makes his work -- not just the Dark Tower series, but his entire canon -- stronger. If you think about this book as a bit of a keystone for King (his attempt to make sense out of the senselessness that was the sixties, as well the failures of his generation to follow through and actually practice what they preached), then I think it helps to frame the rest of his career.

    The entire Dark Tower series is about trying to restore the world -- here, "the world" means all known reality! -- to a sense of normalcy. In a way, that runs completely contrary to the supposed aims of the Love Generation, but in a way it's also exactly the same thing. Depends on how you look at it.

    Either way, if you think of King's career as a constant process of men and women fighting monsters, and sometimes winning but mostly not doing terribly well, I think it's very possible to read what he's doing as a playing-out of the concerns of his generation. Also, he's fully aware that while battles can be won, the war probably can't be: eventually, SOME monster is going to get us.

    I'm not sure any of what I just said made sense, but it's the best I can do at the moment!

    Speaking of monsters getting us, as I recall this was the first book of King's that came out after his near-fatal accident, and at the time nobody really seemed to know whether he would recover and actually be able to write again. I was just as big a King fan then as I am now, so I bought the book the day it came out, but I put off reading it for months. For whatever reason, I just didn't want to tackle it; I think I might have been a bit concerned that I might well have purchased the final new King book, and it made me melancholic as hell.

    So, whereas the book came out in late summer, I put off reading it until Christmas. Which is, I think, the ONLY time I've delayed reading a new King book.

    On the subject of the movie: I don't think it's a bad movie, per se, but it's not as good as it ought to have been. The emotions mostly feel false. I've got no problem with a sappy movie that seems custom designed to elicit emotion; I think movies that do that can be very useful. (I'd cite Forrest Gump as a good example; I know some people find it to be overblown, but I find it to be thoroughly moving.) It's just that in this particular movie, it feels obvious that everyone is acting; you're not watching people being moved on screen, you're watching people pretend to be moved. There's a HUGE difference.

    What you've got in that movie is a competently-made film with a good story, but with no honest emotion in it. But I've definitely seen worse.

    1. I'm with you on Forrest Gump. I've got no problem with that. And I'm actually not as down on the movie as I may sound; I just find it a baffling translation of text to screen. Good call on the pretense / artifice of the movie. Anthony Hopkins does a good enough job, I think, but, for him, that's nothing.

      You ever see The World's Fastest Indian, perchance? That's among my favorite Hopkins roles.

      I'd write more, but my cat is letting me know in no uncertain terms that I should be off the computer and attending to his needs... thanks for the thoughtful comments, as always, sir.

    2. "The entire Dark Tower series is about trying to restore the world -- here, "the world" means all known reality! -- to a sense of normalcy. In a way, that runs completely contrary to the supposed aims of the Love Generation, but in a way it's also exactly the same thing. Depends on how you look at it."

      That's quite a good insight. I hadn't put those two together, but yes, absolutely.

    3. I hadn't put it together, either; not until I typed it. I was thoroughly pleased with myself, too!

      Let's not rule out the possibility that it's somebody else's idea that I read, forgot about, then remembered subconsciously. I always worry I'll do stuff like that. So if somebody out there catches me at it, by all means, point it out.

    4. "Either way, if you think of King's career as a constant process of men and women fighting monsters, and sometimes winning but mostly not doing terribly well, I think it's very possible to read what he's doing as a playing-out of the concerns of his generation. Also, he's fully aware that while battles can be won, the war probably can't be: eventually, SOME monster is going to get us."

      Just reading this again tonight and I have to say - this nails it, considerably.

      I'll assume you read it, forgot it, then remembered it subconsciously, lest I'd be too jealous.

      Seriously, tho, good stuff - that's EXACTLY it. I'm thinking of that in terms of the Dark Tower, too. But what's more of a Dark Tower than Vietnam/ survivor's guilt?

    5. p.s. Also: See The World's Fastest Indian and review it, please! (A request from the audience!)

    6. Now I'm getting requests!

      Maybe I'll figure out how to make this hobby a career yet...

  2. 2016 comment instead of a full 2016 blog-revisit:

    1) I renew my appreciation for "The World's Fastest Indian."

    2) I reread "Hearts in Atlantis" and "Blind Willie" today and yesterday. In every King work, some characters - usually protagonists but not exclusively - laugh together so hard that they have to lean on something or one another until they stop. This sometimes happens multiple times in the same work - I think it might happen upwards of a hundred in It, alone. "Hearts in Atlantis" is fascinating in this regard, as it suggests this writing-tic of his is a sort of Browncoat PTSD noble gesture of sorts. He basically comes out and says as much in the text itself, but I think he meant it only for the novella, whereas I am applying it across all his books.

    If I was his editor I'd return every draft where any characters laugh so hard they hold on to one another with the section crossed out and "You covered this in 'Hearts in Atlantis'" in the margin.

    And 3) "Blind Willie" is still a weird one, its symbolism a little too on-the-nose, its satire a little too unwieldy.

    1. The laughter thing is certainly one of those elements that is so pervasive in his work that it's an essential element in analyzing his canon. That and racist villains. Like you, I could live without both. But I guess it just sort of comes with the territory, and if that's true, I can live with it.

      I like "Blind Willie," but it really is a weirdo. It feels to me like King was chasing some sort of an idea HARD with that one, and that he may not have really ever caught it. But I kind of admire the chase, if that makes sense.

    2. It does, and I can see that. I think "Why We Were in Vietnam" works a little better as a story, even if it too is imperfect, but I like both quite a bit.

      It's a fascinating novel. I finished rereading all except "Low Men in Yellow Coats", which I reread not too, too long ago, so I might just move on. This cluster King-reading is addictive, but I think I've gotten to all the ones I meant to and then some.

    3. Well, since I'm apparently just going to keep commenting on old posts...but had to share that after reading your comment about the pervasive fits of laughter in King's works (and thinking it is a spot-on observation that hadn't occurred to me before), I opened up Duma Key to read about Edgar meeting Wireman, during which time they spend about two and a half pages laughing fit to bust. So yeah, it does seem to be a pattern. :)

  3. I'm currently rereading "Hearts In Atlantis" (the novella, not the full book) via its appearance in "Hearts In Suspension," the King-in-college book that the University of Maine press put out last year.

    Boy is that a good novella. I haven't gotten very far in yet, but I'm pleased that it's living up to my memory of it.

    1. Crikey - I keep forgetting "Hearts in Suspension" is out. I need to pick that up.

      The novella "Hearts" is probably my favorite from that collection, although "Low Men in Yellow Coats" is a close second.

    2. So far, "Hearts In Suspension" is a winner. King's essay for it is substantial (50ish pages) and easily ranks as an essential piece among his nonfiction. It adds so much biographical context to "Hearts In Atlantis" that that novella being reprinted seems less like filler than it felt when I first heard about it.