Fiction Review: "Hearts in Atlantis" by Stephen King (Part 1 - 1960:Low Men in Yellow Coats)
It was his first real kiss, too, and Bobby never forgot the feel of her lips pressing on his his - dry and smooth and warmed by the sun. It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting.
"Sometimes a little of the magic sticks around," Bobby said. "That's what I think. We came because we still hear some of the right voices. Do you hear them? The voices?"
Hearts in Atlantis can be considered his writing on his own generation, the one that came of age in the 1960s. Being born in 1971 I have to confess to not having any personal connection to the 1960s. But, one of King's greatest strengths is in his characters - they are real people with real wants and needs. I think that is what makes his addition of the supernatural to his stories so effective - even in the face of the supernatural we are still dealing with real people.
Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of novellas and short stories. I'll be breaking this into reviews of one or two stories each, depending on the length of the tales. Only the first of the tales is strong in the supernatural but the events that take place there have reverberations over the decades.
There will be some spoilers I'm certain but I'll try not to give away endings - though given the stories are chronological that to some degree may prove difficult.
1960: Low Men in Yellow CoatsThe first of our tales takes place in the town of Harwich, Connecticut, a fictional suburb of Bridgeport. This was something that grabbed my attention having spent the bulk of my childhood my early adulthood in a town just about half an hour away from Bridgeport up Route 8. Under King Harwich is a very real town with the diner popular for parents and kids to go to - the Colony Diner, shades of the Farm Shoppe that later became a Friendly's in my hometown.
Our protagonist is Bobby Garfield who turns eleven on the day the story begins, towards the end of the school year. He is the son of Randall and Liz Garfield. His mother has nothing kind to say about Bobby's father who had the audacity to die of a heart attack eight years previous. That is not an exaggeration - she is indeed very bitter and angry about his dying and in so doing, leaving them. Your father didn't exactly leave us well off.
Bobby is madly in love with a Schwinn bicycle and is engaged in saving up for it. His best friends are John "Sully-John" Sullivan and Carol Gerber. Bobby and Sully are avid baseball players. Carol is madly in love with Bobby, to which he is of course, oblivious, accepting her for a less gushy than normal girl.
To this mix is added a wild card, an elderly man by the name of Ted Brautigan, who moves into the 3rd floor apartment of the house the Garfields live in. Liz Garfield takes an immediate dislike to him, not trusting a man who carries his possessions in paper bags. However, Ted and Bobby become very close, Ted being impressed by the adult library card Bobby received as a birthday gift from his mother. He latter gives Bobby the gift of William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies which Bobby becomes convinced is the best book he ever read.
The descent of the boys into savagery becomes a recurring theme in both this novella and the later tales in the volume.
"Why'd you do that?" Bobby yelled at the boy in the motorcycle belt, and as the words came out of his mouth it was as if he had heard them a thousand times before. All of this was like a ritual, the stuff that got said before the real yanks and pushes began and the fists began to fly. He thought of Lord of the Flies again- Ralph running from Jack and the others. At least on Golding's island there had been jungle. He and Carol had nowhere to run.
He says "Because I felt like it." That's what comes next.Ted is not a normal person. He is clearly a telepath of some sort. Moreover his telepathic ability can temporarily rub off on others after physical combat. Bobby becomes the beneficiary of this on a day he goes to the beach and nearby amusement park on the first Saturday of summer vacation with Carol, her mom, Sully-John and several others. It allows him to win at three-card monte and to share his first kiss with Carol.
Ted quickly evolves into a father figure for Bobby. He also hires Bobby to keep an eye out for "Low Men" - Ted is on the run from people who desire his abilities. These Low Men go on to play a major role in the final three books of The Dark Tower Series, as does Ted.
Ted tells what signs to look for of the Low Men. But in so doing he unwillingly puts Bobby into an adult conundrum. Bobby begins seeing those very signs. What should Bobby do? For most of the book Bobby is half convinced Ted is nuts in his fear of the Low Men. He knows he should tell Ted. But he knows if he does Ted will almost certainly leave and Bobby has come to love the old man.
The book reaches its climax with Bobby isolated from his mother and Sully-John. His mother, the secretary at a real estate office, has gone to a seminar with her boss and two agents. But she should have known better, should have known the lack of character of the men she was going with. The same type of men who would chase a boy/pig through the woods armed with spears in Lord of the Flies. She'd normally leave him with Sully-John but Sully-John has won a trip to a camp near Storrs, CT. (A place where I spent five years of my life as an undergraduate.) Liz hesitantly leaves him in the care of Ted.
Bobby is quite happy at this development but it also becomes clear that Ted is not imagining the Low Men. As Ted makes preparations to leave the stress begins to rip Bobby apart, bringing him to Carol for comfort. However, Bobby and Carol soon have a confrontation with the older and dreaded "St. Gabe's Boys". They manage to escape with adult assistance but the next day they take out a horrible vengeance on Carol, beating her with baseball bats and dislocating her shoulder. Things spiral into a horrible disaster ending with betrayals, a confrontation with the Low Men, and Bobby's final farewell to Ted.
In the aftermath of these events, Bobby is not the boy he had been. His friendship with Sully-John is not what it was. He has turned very violent, the first use of this being to exact vengeance on the boy who beat Carol with a baseball bat and dislocated her shoulder. We quickly follow him through his next years as he descends deeper and deeper into self-destruction.
I'm hoping I've not given away too too much. There is of course so much more than what I've written. This is in many ways a coming of age story but for Bobby this is an exceedingly unpleasant coming of age. He finds himself confronting adult conflicts and adult fears. He learns that adults do not have the answers. Ted tells Bobby about what Golding said of the ending of Lord of the Flies - to paraphrase, it is very well that the adults rescue the children, but who is it who will rescue the adults?
However, it's clear that Bobby cannot stay a child forever. And Ted brings him into a wonderful world. Ted is a supreme bibliophile, introducing Bobby to a larger world and has many conversations with Bobby. The tragedy is the two of them cannot stay together. Would Bobby have been better off had they never met? Probably not, but he would have been far better off if Ted could have stayed.
While Bobby's childhood is firmly set in the sixties, it is certainly a childhood I can relate to. That possession you just have to have. Parents you love but whom you realize aren't perfect or have all the answers. Easy friendships that you'll never know the like of again. That feeling of unlimited possibility that becomes limited by every choice you make.
This is the most "fantastic" of the tales in Hearts in Atlantis. We've got Ted with his telepathic powers, the frightening Low Men, and references to the Dark Tower. But King is adept at suggesting more than he shows. We really don't fully understand the Low Men nor do we understand Ted fully. More will be revealed in the Dark Tower series but in this work Bobby is our viewpoint character (and, to a lesser extent, Carol). In readin this we become reawakened to the world of children. As an adult I can watch how my children can make a huge deal over something small to adults. But it is easy for us as adults to pass that judgement, having lived through our own childhoods, King reminds us for a child how real and immediate other concerns can be. "This too shall pass" means less to someone for whom there has not yet been such a thing as an "average year".