Fiction Review: "Hearts in Atlantis" by Stephen King (Part 2 - 1966: Hearts in Atlantis)

"I learned a lot in college, the very least of it in the classrooms."

The first novella in King's Hearts in Atlantis, Low Men in Yellow Coats, is by far the longest in the volume, taking about 50% of the book. It concerned 11 year old Bobby Garfield and his friends John Sullivan and Carol Gerber meting Ted Brautigan. We learn Ted has some telepathic abilities and can pass them on to others, at least briefly. We also learn that he has some connection to the Dark Tower, the center of Stephen King's "universe".

The second tale, entitled "Hearts in Atlantis", from which the volume gets its title, is also of novella length, though considerably shorter than the previous tale. It is also far less "fantastic", more grounded in reality. But it also shows the affects the previous tale had on Carol Gerber, now 17 and a freshman at the University of Maine. However, she is not the viewpoint character, rather that is Peter Riley, another freshman at the University of Maine.

Our protagonist, Peter Riley, is on financial assistance at the University of Maine. He has a cafeteria job to help pay his way though school. And this requires him to maintain a minimum GPA. The people in his dorm are in the same situation as him.

An A student in high school, Pete starts the semester off fairly well. We meet some of the other residents of his dorm. He becomes close friends with Skip Kirk. His roommate Nate is a pre-dentistry student who prefers not to get directly involved in the history being made around him. You've got the floor proctor, David Dearborn, a by the book ROTC student who wants more order and respect from his floor. Stoke Jones is a anti-war activist who has a huge chip on his soldier and health problems and non-working legs. Ronnie Malefant is a generally nasty character with bad hygiene. And living nearby and also working in the dining hall is Carol Gerber.

Pete develops two passions. The one most understandable is the attraction he feels towards Carol Gerber. Though both have someone back home they quickly form a romantic relationship. The other is a never-ending hearts game, initiated by the foul-mouthed Ronnie Malefant.

The hearts game is something hard to explain but to be honest I have witnessed similar all-consuming passions. The bulk of the residents of the third floor, Nate, Dearborn, and Stoke excepted, spend all their time playing hearts. They begin neglecting their school work and even their classes. Soon people begin dropping out of school and others know they won't be invited back next semester. And at this period of time, people with a Y chromosome not attending school tended to get invited to visit Vietnam.

His relationship with Carol is one of the few things that can pull Pete out of his hearts games. She has become very active in the anti-war movement. Her experiences in the previous tale, where she was rescued from Bobby gives her the need to do this. However, as this tale and later tales in this book reveal, she becomes involved with some very shady characters.

I can't speak to how well this tale captures King's lost continent of Atlantis, a metaphor he uses for the Sixties. I was born in the following decade. I can say that I was reminded of my own time in college. How things change for you. Unexpected opportunities. Missed opportunities too. And strange obsessions. My dorms didn't have any hearts games but strange obsessions did through the dorms I lived in. A bunch of us engineers used to study in a large basement room of one dorm I lived in, someplace we called "the Pit", and there were always a few chessboards around. On the computer front there was an obsession with Tetris that hit our dorm.

I also found the change in technology interesting. Though this tale took place in the sixties, the technology was actually closet to the technology I went to college with in the late 80s/early 90s than the technology of today. We had cable tv and our own telephones. VCRs too. Some of us - especially the engineers - had PCs - though none of us had laptops. And a very few of us had access to the nascent internet, working our way with BITNET and Gopher. But today's college students have smartphones, tablets, etc.

I imagine one thing that hasn't changed from the 1960s to 1990s to 2010s is what a change it makes in you. Or at least it can. One of the characters, Nate, plays it safe. He's at the periphery. He wants to be more involved, but can't. Pete gets pulled into lots of stuff and needs an act of will to take control of his own life. Carol is trying to repay the debt she owes to Bobby from the previous tale by taking stands. But she gets pulled into dark places, as this tale and the later tales in the book allude to.

Also reflected in this tale is what relationships we keep from that period of our lives. Sometimes we form relationships that last a lifetime. Other people come into our lives, make a huge impact, and then back out, never to be seen again. I met my wife at UConn, just a month away from graduation (on a night whose stated goal was for me to forget about women). I also had my first serious relationship there with a woman who I've not seen for nearly twenty years now but who clearly made an impact on me. And there's people in-between with whom I hear from occasionally, communicate with on Facebook, etc.

I'm talking a lot about me in this "review" but I think the nature of the story encourages that. "Low Men in Yellow Coats" took us to the magic of childhood. "Hearts in Atlantis" takes us to another magical time where we begin our journey into adulthood with infinite opportunities and possibilities.

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