So effective a compendium of a few related (and maybe connected) stories that I remembered one of them over 15 years later. I wanted to re-read a first-person account of regret, and I remembered the one here of a college student in the 60s who barely made it to college, on a scholarship, only to learn that passing his classes and staying in college was literally a matter of life and death. Fail out, and he'd be drafted into Vietnam. Stay, and he'd live.
The bulk of the story was the Freudian death-drive of this character, and of the many around him. It was sick and depressing but very real. Anyone with a college degree may remember his own college days, and how his friends dropped like flies around him as they were unable to make the transition to self-responsibility and maturity. That, and not intelligence, I assure you, separated those who stayed and got a degree and those who didn't. You would think that since failing out could be deadly that these men would go to classes and pass out of basic necessity. But that's not the way it was when I went to college, and I doubt that the added stress would help them do better. It would make them fail out all the more, as most people that age simply cannot handle that much stress, while being on their own and education in college are stressful enough. Hearts, and the Queen of Spades, did these guys in.
The narrator of this part, surprisingly, is the only character not of importance in the other parts.
The book starts off with the story that led to the movie with Anthony Hopkins. It's very good, and also memorable, but it stops abruptly after a few hundred pages. It's long enough to be a full novel in itself, and it's got that nostalgic, past / childhood / innocence vibe that he did so well in IT. In fact, I feel that King stopped this one where he did because it was becoming another IT, and he didn't want it to go there. I'll bet he intended the other parts to all tie in solidly together in a long opus like IT, but then kept them apart when he realized he had something so close to IT that he had to make it markedly different. That's just a guess, and the interconnections later I think show me right, but that's up to you. There's a Beverly Marsh figure named Carol, and a Stuttering Bill, too. Pick up IT and fast-forward everyone about 12-15 years, so that IT's crew would be facing the Vietnam War in the face when they were of college age, and you've about got it. It takes place in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the Housatonic--where Stephen King did spend a few years of his childhood--rather than in Derry, NH, but it's essentially the same.
The Willie Shearman section connects the least with everything, except there's a glove, and a theme of shame and penance. I kept waiting for it to strongly connect, or to be an important part of one of the other sections, but that never quite happened. The action he's ashamed of happens in the beginning story, and it's referred to in the last one, but Willie wasn't a huge part in that action, and he's a minor part in the Vietnam War section (and there's a strange joining of two characters from the first story that hits more as coincidence than connection; or, what's the chance of two characters from the same town coming together in the same platoon in Vietnam?), so the very small story with him as the sole character feels more like a character study than anything else. And it's a disconnected mystery about how the glove makes it from this section to the last.
But all in all this is a tremendous achievement in Stephen King's non-horror canon. Because surviving Vietnam was undoubtedly a horror, and the terror of surviving college to avoid the draft must have been a horror of a different sort. Both involved better men than me. This book is an off-shoot of the Tower, but you don't have to read that series to appreciate this. It worked for me like Bag of Bones did, and like some of the others of this time. And these were a helluva lot better than the drivel he's producing now, that's for sure.
His newest comes out in a few days, and I'll buy it and read it, but...well, what a drop-off there's been. I used to rue that so much of his stuff was tinged with the Tower, but I now see that his work has suffered since he's veered from the Beam. He needs to get back on it, and see where his literary legacy has gone, and get back to serving whatever Tower he'd been faithful to before.