Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Read: 31 March, 2008

Hearts in Atlantis is a collection of short(ish) interwoven stories dealing in some way with the 60s, Vietnam, and the lives of two people named Carol and Bobby. The first and main story is about a kid named Bobby who finds himself just about to grow up. One day, an older man named Ted moves into the building and, in him, Bobby finds an adult he can be friends with. This is the only story that deals with the supernatural and Stephen King fans will find that it connects with his Dark Tower series.

The rest of the stories are considerably shorter and mostly deal with Vietnam – either with the fear of being sent or with the effects of having been there. Wrapping up the novel is a short story that finds Bobby returning to his home town, completing the circular path of the novel.

According to the book jacket, the novel is about Vietnam and the 60s, but it’s done in a very circumspect way. Only the minor characters ever go, the heroes of the shorter stories crammed into the final few pages. The main characters, Bobby from “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and Pete from “Hearts in Atlantis,” never go. Bobby, in fact, never even gets to hear about Vietnam, growing up before the war starts. But “Low Men in Yellow Coats” doesn’t avoid the subject at all, it merely hides it. Bobby is given a copy of Lord of the Flies and becomes obsessed with it, using that novel to understand his world, a world that would be transformed into a scene from the novel in the following years. As for Pete, he comes close to Vietnam, almost touches it, but he manages to scramble back into humanity and away from the mentality of Lord of the Flies that he approaches when he laughs at a crippled classmate who falls and nearly drowns in a flooded path. He regains himself, saving the classmate and raising his grades so that he wouldn’t be sent to war, he is spared the guilt and trauma that affects the main characters of the next two stories.

For a book that centres around Vietnam, Hearts in Atlantis somehow manages to stay off the soapbox. It’s always something that’s bothered me about Vietnam stories. It’s such a raw subject that I’ve yet to see an author be able to handle it without becoming preachy. That’s not to say that King doesn’t show an opinion, but that opinion is not a moral judgement of the war, but rather an exploration of the mentality that led to what happened during the war – like Lord of the Flies, he presents us with ordinary people who were thrust into extraordinary situations and either did or saw things that they spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with.

The characterization is amazing. This is the first actual Stephen King book that I’ve read. I’ve read some of his short stories, but they’ve never appealed to me. Now I know why. His strongest ability is characterization, something that he creates and builds upon over the course of a long narrative. Despite the length, there was an economy of space too. Every scene served to advance character and the result was a lengthy book with very little action that I read quickly and excitedly.

I’m trying to think of labels for the book, but I’m finding myself at a loss. There are elements of suspense and horror, but these are merely vehicles for exploration and not the subjects of it. Not to mention that the supernatural elements of “Low Men in Yellow Coats” are abandoned entirely until the final few pages.

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