King's Highway pt. 5.5: Duma Key, Revisited

I finished my fourth reread of Duma Key in as many years last night. 


It's the book I've nominated as King's best on at least two occasions (2012 and only a few weeks ago). I stand by that, as well as these remarks in my original review, but this time around some of the shortcuts in the last two or three hundred pages annoyed me more than on previous occasions. 

But who cares? It's not a perfect novel, but is it perfect enough? Absolutely. If it was the only thing he'd ever written, perhaps its excellence would stand out more clearly. As it is, it's like the hidden peak in the range on everyone's horizon, obscured by the ones easier to see from the ground, perhaps. Or perhaps it's just my personal favorite. Either/or makes no difference to me.

As it is not the only book King has written, though, it's instructive to consider what it has in common with its bibliographic brothers and sisters. I think if you have a fair idea of the ways King usually goes about his novel-writing business then it's easy to see the way he does so here is pretty tidy. He showed up with the toolbox he describes so well in On Writing and ready to build the reader a unique and multi-level summer home on the Florida coast. (Before, of course, invoking an ancient demon and then destroying the place with a hurricane. Caveat Emptor. Or perhaps - as scrawled on the remains of the gates to Heron's Roost, the first Eastland estate on Duma Key - it should be Abyssus Abyssum Invocat.)

I thought it might be fun to resurrect my King's Highway Bingo Scorecard to discuss some of these similarities with other King works. Maybe along the way I can explain - to myself as much as anyone else - why I feel all of these elements combine so pleasingly for me in Duma Key. As the Denver Post wrote in its review of the novel:

"The usual King devices are present: a penchant for dropping in pop-culture references to frame events; liberal applications of portent ('I wish with all my heart that I could have seen her better, because I never saw her again'); the convergence of multiple, seemingly unrelated stories like tributaries into a raging river; and a dreamlike climax in which characters transcend their abilities on their personal proving grounds.

But again, (it) works not in spite of these chestnuts but because of them. Somehow King can shuffle the same cards and consistently deal new storytelling hands. It is, in essence, his own supernatural accomplishment."

Hear, hear. And without further ado (insert sound fx of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" and car engine revving, tires squealing, then cut to fast-motion shots of the open road):

Is the protagonist from Maine? Minnesota. Duma is modeled on Casey Key, FL., and judging from how well King brings it to life here I hope he sets something else down there soon. Minnesota, too, for that matter, why not.

Does someone entertain thoughts of suicide? Yes. Suicide is not the dominant theme of the book, though; precisely the opposite.

Is there a psychic child? Yes, Libby, i.e. Elizabeth Eastlake as a youngster, though her psionic abilities are more like Edgar's. They're more perfect tuning forks for the supernatural Perse. 

Are plot events foreshadowed explicitly by a dead character/ dream character/ psychic? Yes.

Is there a big-ass storm at the end? Absolutely. King often uses storms as punctuation, as many writers do, or as found-structure. Here, the storm is the Götterdämmerung of the Edgar/Perse synthesis, which makes it the final, willful act of the healed (though not without considerable sacrifice) artist emerging from the underworld. Battered and weary - bereft of arm and more - but alive. 

Is there a racist / misogynist / falsely-religious antagonist? No.

Is there telepathy?
The only conventionally telepathic character here is Wireman, and only for half the book. King has sometimes used telepathy as a blunt instrument or as a way of getting his characters out of trouble. I do not doubt his sincere fascination with the subject, but it sometimes amazes me how omnipresent it is in his work. You'd figure if only for variety someone would say "Hey now... again with this?" 

But here, telepathy - like the storm or the psychic child - is just another tool in his toolkit, used precisely and with great skill, rather than anything deus-ex-machina-y. (Jack's sudden ventriloquism at Heron's Roost aside. And maybe that's just there to draw attention to how he usually employs such things.) Duma Key is a rare transit-of-Venus in King's catalog where all of these elements line up to reflect (and refract) the novel's deeper themes.
Is there a wisecracking sidekick with repetitive catchphrases? And here we have the best of all these points: Wireman. Not only is Wireman the best sidekick character in any King book - the perfect synthesis of Matt Burke, Glen Bateman, Richie Tozier, Eddie Dean, Tom McCourt, you name it - his repetitive-catchphrase-disorder actually makes sense: it's the result of having been shot in the head. Plus, his chemistry with Edgar is very agreeable. It's oversold in spots,
much the same way every character in the book makes a point to verbalize that Jack "is just terrific", but in a way, that's part of the fun. I get the impression King wasn't stacking the deck to get us to like them; he was just letting them speak freely amongst themselves. These are characters who think the world of one another.

Are there epistolary sections? Yes. I've mentioned elsewhere that these sections are never my favorite parts of King-books. Whomever the letter/journal writer, he or she always sounds the same from novel-to-novel, and it never reads authentically to me. Duma Key only has a few (emails from Pam, Edgar, Kamen, and Ilse, mainly), and they're not bad. The rare exception in this category.

Is info deliberately withheld between chapters/ sections to build page-turning suspense? Yes, and maybe a bit too much in the back pages. A little of that goes a long way.
I rolled my eyes at Jack's sudden ventriloquism as a way to give voice to Noreen from the first read on, but maybe all of Edgar's super-powered insight into Nan Melda's and Elizabeth's first go-round with Perse is a little info-dump-y. 

I quite like Wireman's bravado, though. This has nothing to do with info deliberately being withheld - neither does the last part of the above paragraph, for that matter. Consider these additional remarks as bonus features.

Does someone not give "shit one" or say "happy crappy?" I think there is one not-giving-of-shit-one. Most of this novel's refrains ("Houston, we are a go for such-and-such" or any of Wireman's wise sayings) work very well.

Does someone imitate or engage in "mammy" dialogue? Sort of, with Nan Melda/ Noreen. But only minimally, and you could certainly argue that it, too, is in service to theme and not just that Little Black Sambo Tourette's that occasionally (and unfortunately) possesses King. 

And perhaps the most important square: 

Is it a ridiculously enjoyable read? For me, this is as compulsively readable as any other book in the big man's catalog. It's epic and wonderful and moving and mystical and filled with insights both profound and unsettling. And just as a writerly construction, I admire the crap out of it.


I don't believe there are any plans to bring Duma Key to either the small or big screen. Which on one hand is too bad. I love the story, and I can easily see it as a movie or mini-series. It might be tricky to pull off all of Edgar's paintings, but it could be done, and done quite well.

On the other, I'm incredibly sick of disappointing King adaptations. No need to rush things. 

Nevertheless, I couldn't help picturing the whole thing as a miniseries as I read along. Previous casting suggestions in these pages (by Bryant Burnette) were Bryan Cranston as Edgar and Edward James Olmos as Wireman. That's about as perfectly-matched to the characters in the book as you can get, although Olmos' style might be too subdued for Wireman. He more than makes up for that in awesomeness, though.  

Something funny happened, though, the more I imagined this as a miniseries. It became in my imagination less and less about the book itself and more a Miami Vice-style adaptation. It started with picturing the theme music - which is completely inappropriate for the style and atmosphere of the book, of course - over some montage of Southwest Florida scenery and scenes from the book. The idea amused me enough where I eventually began imagining Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as Edgar and Wireman, and then eventually Crockett and Tubbs as Edgar and Wireman, and the whole story taking place in (and changing to fit) some kind of Miami Vice reunion movie, all leading up to the epic ending with Crockett and Tubbs a la Edgar and Wireman on Lake Phelan, returning bad-assedly to shore after drowning Perse to sleep, shot and scored in traditional style.

Man. Not for the last time - and for dubious reasons - my lack of both millions of dollars and studio connections pains me deeply. Not for my own sake but the world's.

These Miami Vice-isms aside, Duma Key remains the Dog Star Omnibus pick for Unsung Heavyweight Champ of the Kingverse. 


  1. I've occasionally found myself wondering why "Duma Key" isn't celebrated more than it is. The easy answer -- maybe even the correct one -- is that its champions, including you and me, are overvaluing it. In other words, we're wrong and everyone else is right.

    Unsurprisingly, I'm going to reject that notion immediately. The only reason I brought it up at all is so I could reject it. This is a GREAT novel, and while I wouldn't personally rank it at the top of the pile among King books, that might be only due to the fact I've read it a mere once. I trust your King insights fairly implicitly, though, and if you've got this many great feelings about it after multiple rereads, that convinces me: we are right to champion it.

    Why, then, don't others?

    It's an impossible question to answer definitively, but my best guess is that it's one of two things:

    (1) The lack of a movie adaptation. There haven't even been rumors about one. This suggests to me that King may never have sold them, which in turn suggests that he is waiting for the right adaptor to come along. Be that as it may (or may not), the lack of even a potential movie has kept the title a bit out of the limelight in comparison to other King works.

    (2) The relative lack of a really predominant villain. There's no Annie Wilkes or Cujo or Leland Gaunt for people to obsess over. You can't do fan art of a bunch of King villains and have this novel be easily represented, and while that ought not matter, maybe it kind of does.

    I enjoyed the Miami Vice fugue at the end of this. Shit, man, works for me.

    1. At first I thought it would have to be Crockett who was the Edgar character, but it might be more interesting if it was Tubbs, and Crockett was Wireman. Elizabeth would probably be Castillo.

      Those are as valid reasons as any I can think of to potentially explain Duma Key's lack of popular perception as one of King's best. I for one like Perse and her slow entrance into things - though of course she's there from almost the first, but we don't get to recognize her until much later. The whole ship of the damned thing could be played up more (but hopefully not too much) in a film or miniseries.

  2. I just find she'd this for the first time earlier tonight (in the frantic page-turning manner to which I have become all-too-accustomed when reading SK books). I moved this up my to-read list in part due to the strong recommendations of both ye Constant Bloggers, so I had some level of expectation going in, but otherwise I knew very little of the content.

    A few of my quick response observations:

    1. I definitely agree that this should be highly ranked among King's catalogue. Timeworn Kingisms aside, as Bryan points out they are mainly wielded in support of the main plot, not as heavy-handed as in some other works (such as Rose Madder, another art-related one). My overall sense of Duma Key was that it was a taut thriller, a bit slow at times but with a mystery lurking under the surface and hinted at gradually that kept me reeled in for the long haul.

    2. This book has some of the scariest scenes I have ever read in King book. The part when Edgar looks up and sees the ship, then finds an unwelcome visitor in the kitchen, had me nervously glancing around at shadows. And I thought 25 years of reading King had numbed me to literary horror!

    3. I have three daughters, so the tragic aspects of this story as relating to daughters really hit hard, despite some of King's usual foreshadowed warnings.

    4. Edgar is one of my favorite protagonists, somewhat of a tragic hero. Which is interesting as I recall the allusion to Shakespeare in the final pages, this story does have aspects of a classic tragedy to it.

    All in all, I think Duma, along with 11/22/63, are the best examples of King's maturity as a writer of strong, poignant, emotional themes. There is real humanity here, many real, flawed characters fleshed out as the story is told. That said, the only knock I have on it is that it's hard to see it as a strong re-read candidate. This may be more of a personal preference, as given some of the above points I finished the book with a real sadness at what had been lost. Regardless, this doesn't keep me from recognizing the many strengths that the novel possesses.

    Thanks for the outlet to dump my thoughts!

    1. Man, once again should have proofed for autocorrect snafus. First sentence: I just FINISHED this....

    2. (1) The Rose Madder reference reminds me of something - this ongoing thing in King's work about art being an excavation, a revelation, often of horrible things: nowhere is it better realized (IMO) than Duma Key, but his attempts elsewhere (Rose Madder, God so many others) are all so varied. Few have taken this theme and explored it in so many different ways. I give him some grief for the prevalence of psionic children who suddenly appear in the last acts of his books, but really, he's a one-man Stan-and-Jack Marvel Universe. In the Guys Who Explore People-with-Superpowers genre in so many places, he finds so many ways to come at it anew.

      (2) Man, definitely - that scene especially! God it would make such a kickass movie. I can't believe no one is on the ball with this.

      (3) Amen! And the foreshadowing really sticks out on subsequent reads - the whole novel is so marvelously constructed you don't even notice.

      Happy to hear you got what you got out of it! I can't believe a book this good from an author this well known is championed as little as it is.

    3. Yes, there are a lot of examples of art acting as a supernatural force of sorts, both in an outside of King's oeuvre. The idea of artwork being possessed and/or exerting an evil influence on its owner put me in mind of such varied sources as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ghostbusters 2, and Final Fantasy VI, just for starters.

      Also, I forgot to mention a couple nice allusions in the latter stages of the text. There were two separate snippets that called to mind Shawshank (digging out of a cell with a spoon, and meeting up in a town in Mexico); and the scene where Libbet traps Perse is very reminiscent of Frodo at Mt. Doom while Aragorn and company ride to the Black Gate. In all three cases, the DK version is darker and in a sense ironic compared to the original.