Fiction Review: "Hearts in Atlantis" by Stephen King (Part 3-5)
"People grow up, they grow up and leave the kids they were behind."
"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?"
After opening with two novellas Hearts in Atlantis closes with three short stories.
1983: Blind Willie
The first of the short stories takes us to the 80s and follows Willie Shearman, one of the boys who beat up Carol in the first story. It is an odd tale, as he seeks to do penance for what he did in an odd way. Essentially he adapts a series of identities, including that of a blind Vietnam veteran, "Blind Willie", who begs outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
From other reviews I've seen this seems to be the least popular story in the book. I can see why - it is a bit of a reach, all the identities Willie takes on, how he gets away with it, and most importantly, why he's doing all this.
My own opinion is he's pretty well messed up by his life experiences. There's jokes about Catholic guilt and as a, at least nominal member of that group (until they get around to kicking me out for my whacky views), I can confirm its existence. To paraphrase George Carlin, you've got this all-loving God who is perfectly willing to send you off to a place of eternal suffering if you do the wrong things. And Billie knows he did wrong by Carol. And in this story we learn more of some of the characters she wound up geting involved with, including one likely familiar to King readers, a dude bearing the initials RF. And he feels he has some of the guilt for that. And he became a lieutenant in Vietnam, running into none other than Bobby and Carol's childhood friend, Sully-John. He actually winds up saving the life of Sully-John - and you'd think that would give him some sense of redemption.
While perhaps weaker than some of the other works, I think it does do a good job of portraying a man trying to make some sense of his life. Perhaps it is a bit unsatisfying as it doesn't quite give closure but rather just gives us a peek at his life.
1999: Why We're in Vietnam
In this tale we get a bit back towards some more familiar territory. It follows Sully going to the funeral of a fellow veteran. And in so doing, we learn more of his life. While Carol became rabidly anti-war, Sully went off to Vietnam. There he met some of the other characters from pervious tales such as Ronnie Malenfant and Willie Shearman. We learn how Sully's platoon was nearly involved in a massive civilian massacre and how it was stopped, though it was not a pleasant experience. We see how Willie saves Sully from death, though Sully is badly wounded and is haunted by visions of a civilan woman killed by his platoon.
A large part of the story, told in flashbacks, is from a conversation between Sully and his old lieutenant, Diefenbaker. They reflect on what they lived through in Vietnam and what happened to them and their generation since. "Deef" is overall disgusted by his generation - he feels they never have left Vietnam, something that Sully and his "ghost" could attest to. The story ends with a hearty dose of the supernatural, although something I can't even come close to describing without going into spoilers.
Overall I liked this tale considerably more than the previous one. Deef and Sully are both wounded by their experiences, whether physically or mentally - or both. You can almost picture King being part of the conversation between the two - they managed to live decent lives after their experience in Vietnam, but there's this sense that their generation had a chance to do something special, something that was lost. I don't know if that's something every generation feels or not. As I grew up college campuses didn't erupt into passions about ending the war or ending racism. Heck, most people at my college seemed to support the Gulf War. So maybe there is something to the criticism King seems to be leveling at his own generation. Though that said he might be a bit too hard on his generation - they did plant some seeds that would bear fruit a generation later.
1999: Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling
And finally we return to young Bobby Garfield. Though not so young any more. He returns to his hometown of Harwich for the first time since 1960 to attend a funeral - and to learn what became of Carol.
This is another tale that is hard to write about without going into spoiler territory. But it does invoke some feeling. One of the qualities King injects into his characters is the connection to childhood - you see that especially in the novel It, but that skill serves him well here. I was visiting my parents in Connecticut several months ago and we drove to pick up some pizza, going to the place we used to always get pizza from. It was a strange experience going back into a restaurant I used to know so well but hadn't entered in something like fifteen years. So I get a glimpse of how Bobby feels as you visit places you'd not seen in a long time - for him nearly four decades.
It is a touching story where Bobby finally gets some closure the events of his last months in Harwich. And gets to rediscover some of the magic from his childhood.