In Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King gets in a few more pokes and jabs at his detractors, the ones who consider him a schlock-meister. They are the "legitimate" literary establishment, "book snobs," but ol' SK still seems to be trying to break into their ranks. He may have done it with this collection of two long and three short stories bound by recurring characters, the lost cause of a certain police action in Southeast Asia, and that horrible, beautiful decade that defined King's Boomer generation, the Sixties. His faithful readers will recognize his New England landscape and theme of innocence lost, but these stories offer little resistance to novice King readers.
In the opening novella, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," King fans are reminded that even in summery 1960 Connecticut, all things serve the Beam. Eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield, in addition to running around with his pals Carol and Sully-John, becomes friends with an old man who rents out a third-floor apartment in Bobby's building. Bobby's penny-pinching and pinch-mouthed mother, who is as miserly with her affection as with her money, distrusts Ted Brautigan on sight ("I don't trust people who move their things in paper bags. To me a person's things in a paper sack just looks slutty"), but Bobby and Ted continue to cultivate a friendship based on a shared love of books. Ted introduces the boy to Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and that book and its harrowing revelation of true human nature mark not only the end of Bobby's childhood innocence but also that of the nation. Here, lost-pet posters and chalked hopscotch grids indicate that bad things (low men in yellow coats) are afoot. King has always been a master at making ordinary things evince terrifying alter-realities.
Bobby's little girlfriend appears again in the title story. The year is 1966, and the place is the University of Maine. She's someone's girlfriend again, but this someone is a freshman boy between whom and Vietnam college is the only thing standing. Regardless of the all too dangerous consequences of keeping up the old grades, he and almost all the guys on his dormitory floor are seduced by "The Bitch," an ongoing and addictive card tournament of Hearts. As the group of young men fall victim to the seductive distraction from their studies, they also become aware of the possibility of raging against the machine that will, if it can, take their lives and souls and transplant them forever in the jungle soil of Southeast Asia.
In 1983, during the soulless and acquisitive Eighties, "Blind Willie" is paying never-ending penance in NYC for the two great defining events in his life -- a beating he helped give a little girl back in Connecticut when he was a bullying adolescent, and the unforgivable atrocities he committed during his tour of duty in Vietnam. He's three men in one, businessman, tradesman and beggar, and he's about to add killer to his resume.
It's 1999, and Bobby Garfield's old friend Sully-John is a divorced car dealer on his way to a fellow veteran's funeral in "Why We're in Vietnam." As the years have gone by, he's distanced himself from the horrors of Vietnam and the soldiers he served there with. What won't go away is old mamasan, the Vietnamese peasant brutally murdered by that card-playing low bastard Ronnie Malefant. The old woman pays him a visit one last time in a surreal traffic jam, and while the flotsam and jetsam of the civilized veneer of the last thirty years falls all around him, Sully-John finally takes old mamasan's hand.
"Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling" when Bobby Garfield returns to home to say goodbye to a childhood friend. He's looking for redemption, he's looking for an answer, he's looking for his lost innocence and hoping to find what his heart has always desired most. It's a touching and true answer to the questions and pain of the intervening years that concludes the collection.
Hearts in Atlantis might be considered King's magnum opus; time will tell. He's a prolific guy, sometimes brilliant and sometimes not, but man, does he know how to tell a story. There are times between this book's cover that you can almost touch the difference between the Stephen King who wrote Carrie and the one who wrote this. It's not just fun and games and a good clean scare anymore; there's a depth to King's writing here that, while hinted at in some of his early works, has revealed itself fully in Hearts in Atlantis.