Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King--Book Review

Photo: Book's cover art, from its Wikipedia page.

Mr. Mercedes is a much better book than King's last, the truly terrible Dr. Sleep.  (Is he starting a trend of putting titles in his titles?)  It is compulsively readable, as always--as is even his really bad stuff--but it is also better told, without author intrusion or author judgment.  He does not judge his characters here, and he even seems to go a bit out of his way to not let his characters judge each other, as well.  The result is a quick, satisfying read that's a bit skimpy on the supernatural--a pattern for King now as well, it seems.

It starts like an episode of Law & Order might, with a longishly short segment on some soon-to-be victims of a guy who purposely plows a stolen Mercedes into a line of people.  Soon we turn to a typical burned-out cop who's about to eat his gun--that is, until Mr. Mercedes (Get it?) sends him a taunting letter.  This revitalizes the cop, and the search is afoot.

It's told via differing limited-but-omniscient third-person POVs (another King staple) between the perp (who incorrectly refers to himself as the "perk") and the retired cop.  There's nothing in the perp's life we haven't seen before (including a sad little brother right out of "The Scarlet Ibis"), but it's told directly and honestly, and we believe it.  (If you've been watching Bates Motel, you already know almost everything there is to know.)  There's some good stuff about how this guy is all around us--that such people "walk among us," which is another common theme lately in King's work--and there's a bit of computer savvy here that almost is too much, but stops just short.  The peripheral characters in these guys' lives all ring true.  King took pains not to be as lazy with his characters as he was in Dr. Sleep.  Every single character rings true here.

The obligatory younger woman is here, just as she was in 11/22/63 and Bag of Bones, and it seems as real here as it did in those.  Which means, not so much.  This is one of the two minor caveats here: The protagonist's relationship with a woman almost twenty years younger (He's 62 and she's 44, but still...) is so unrealistic that almost everyone in the novel comments on it--especially the guy, who keeps saying to himself that he's unattractive, very overweight, and almost twenty years older than the woman, who's described as very pretty.  And she, of course, comes on to him.  Very, very directly, I might add.  This worked a lot better in 11/22/63 and in Bag of Bones.  As you read, you'll see why it's necessary for the plot, for the main character's motivation at the end, but still...It doesn't bother me too much, except that it's a pattern by now in his work, and it really sticks out in this narrative.  More of an itch than a problem, I guess.  The reader will roll his eyes and easily move on...

There's a lot to like here, especially with the minor characters.  King gets a bit maudlin with one of them, the way Robert B. Parker did with Hawk, and it works as well here as it did for Parker--which, again, means not so much.  This is the second minor caveat.  It could've been cut and nothing would've been lost.  Now that I write about it, I see that this bothers me more than the relationship did in the paragraph above.  But, again, it was easy for me to roll my eyes and move on.  I actually skipped those passages as they came.  You'll see what I mean when you read it.  Feel free to skip those spots as well.  You won't miss anything.

Anyway, this is a likeable read with mostly-likeable characters, except for Mr. Mercedes, his mom, and a certain aunt.  I read its 436 pages in a few days.  It's not his best, but it's far from his worst, which is sort of all I hope from King these days.  That sounds depressing, but I don't mean it to be.  It's like watching a Hall of Fame ballplayer in his last few years.  Good enough is good enough (exactly the opposite of what I believe for most things in life), and you smile as you compare what's in front of you with what used to be.  Not a bad thing, at least for me.

Though I'm still waiting for him to write something really scary again.  It's been too long...

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