Nov 15 2011 1:00pm

Genre in the Mainstream: Stephen King’s From a Buick 8

Stephen King was my first literary love. Between the ages of ten and sixteen I read every book he ever published — most of them twice, and some (his masterpiece, It; the novella The Mist) more often than that. I liked his talky style, and that he wrote a lot about kids, whose concerns and motivations carried equal weight with those of the adults. (Naturally, I also liked all the violence and sex.) But my love of King faded as I got older, for all of the usual reasons — evolving taste, discovery of what else was out there, a need to distance myself from anything that smacked of childhood. And so it went. By the time I graduated high school in 2000, King was largely off my radar.

I remember walking into a Barnes and Noble and seeing his then-newest, From a Buick 8 (2002), on a front table display. The cover depicted a blue car with lightning coming off of it and teeth for a grille. The tagline was, “There are Buicks everywhere…” I about laughed myself out of the store, thinking that King had finally jumped his shark and confirmed in the knowledge that I’d done the right thing to leave him behind.

Only, I never did quite leave him behind. I stayed away a few years, sure, but came back for the final Dark Tower books, and then just kind of… stuck around. I’m not close to a completist anymore, and none of the newer books I have read have thrilled me in the same way as the old books did, though that probably has as much to do with how I’ve changed as a reader as it does with how he’s changed as a writer. Anyway, one day a while back I came upon a paperback copy of Buick 8 in a used bookstore. Since it didn’t have that cringingly awful art from the hardcover edition, I wasn’t too embarrassed to pick it up. After reading just a couple of pages, I decided I would give this one a go.

Turns out that Buick 8 is not about a car with teeth, or about Buicks terrorizing the countryside, or anything remotely like those things. It’s a book about loss and community, and the limits of human understanding pitted against the limitlessness of the world. It also might be the best Stephen King novel of the last ten years. (The only other contender, by my lights, would be Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla.)

From a Buick 8 is set in Western Pennsylvania and is told by state police sergeant Sandy Dearborn, with some help from the other members of Troop D. They’re talking to Ned Wilcox, a high school boy whose father Curtis was part of D until he was killed by a drunk driver while on duty. Ned hangs around the police barracks in order to feel close to his old man; the cops for their part take a collective shine to the boy and so indulge him (and themselves) with memories of Curtis. Eventually, they come to share the mystery of the vintage Buick Roadmaster with which Curtis was obsessed.

The car appeared at an area gas station some years back, driven by a man nobody knew. He got out of the car, walked into the woods and disappeared forever, as if winked out of existence. The car soon proved even stranger than the man who left it behind. Its dashboard instruments were fakes, its steering wheel immobile, its tailpipe made of glass. In fine, the Roadmaster was less a car than somebody’s — or something’s — confused impression of a car (The notion of the slightly off-key imitation is reflected in the novel’s title, which knocks off Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6.”) Flummoxed, the cops took the Roadmaster back to their barracks and stuck it in Shed B, where it has sat ever since, occasionally producing terrifying “lightquakes” (violent eruptions of otherworldly luminosity) but otherwise inert. By the time Ned Wilcox comes along, the self-healing fake car has becomes one more fact of their lives — a curious fact, sure, but mundane all the same. It seems that Curtis Wilcox was virtually alone among the men of Troop D in his desire to “solve” the machine. Naturally, Ned wants to take up where his father left off.

If you’re touchy about SPOILER ALERTS you may want to stop here, because I can’t make the argument for Buick 8 without revealing that the mystery of the Roadmaster is never fully revealed, and that it is King’s willingness to abide in said mystery that makes the novel work. The evidence suggests that the Roadmaster is actually some kind of portal between our world and some other — an alternate dimension? a metaphysical plane? — from which the original “driver” presumably hailed and to which he returned after ditching the car. But these answers only raise larger questions: Who or what was the driver? What was his original mission and why did he abandon it? If there are two worlds where we thought there was one, can’t there be three or five or a hundred or a million? How would having the answers to any of these questions change our view of what it means to be human, to be ourselves?

Those who know their Dark Tower mythos can answer at least a few of these questions. The “driver” seems to be a can-toi, one of the “low men” first introduced in Hearts in Atlantis and known to drive similar cars. The rest of you bear with me here: the can-toi abduct psychic children from our world and bring them to End-world, where the Crimson King harnesses their special energy in order to weaken the “beams” that hold the universe together. The Crimson King’s motive for destroying the universe is never broached in any of the Dark Tower books, leading me to believe that it’s either one of those “because it’s there” things, or else that he has none, which maybe comes to the same. Anyway, despite the presence of the can-toi, and despite Sandy Dearborn’s sharing his last name with a pseudonym once adopted by Dark Tower protagonist Roland Deschain, the events of Buick 8 have never been woven into the master narrative of the Dark Tower. It is a common saying in Roland’s world that “all roads lead to the Dark Tower,” but this one would appear to be a dead end.

Perhaps that will change with The Wind Through the Keyhole, the recently announced 8th volume, which is due out in 2012 and is reportedly set between books four and five — but I hope not. The book fares best if considered as a self-contained Weird Tale in the tradition of Lovecraft, whose unspeakably grotesque “gods” were only ever revealed in feverish glimpses to men whose sanity is more than open to question. Lovecraft felt that existence itself was monstrous, and that to behold the monstrosity in even a fraction of its totality was to invite (and perhaps deserve) annihilation. King accepts Lovecraft’s sense of scale but rejects his judgmental pessimism as anti-human, and maybe lily-livered too. For King the ineffable is not synonymous with the unbearable, and peering into the abyss is its own reward — never mind what’s looking back, or what it sees.

Justin Taylor is the author of The Gospel of Anarchy and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, and the editor of The Apocalypse Reader, an anthology of short fiction about the end of the world.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
N. Mamatas
1. N. Mamatas
Definitely and easily the best of "late" Stephen King's stuff. When he comes up among people who roll their eyes at the thought of reading horror or SF, I always mention this book.
N. Mamatas
2. mad_for_fantasy
I was introduced to King through Pet Semetery. And, man, was I impressed. There is something about his writing that reaches inside our minds and does stuff with it. If something goes terribly wrong in his books then we are bound to shriek out "Somebody STOP it from happening!". Such is the power of his words. I found it evident in Desperation and Needful Things.

I purchased The Stand a few days back, but haven't found the time to start reading it yet. The mammoth that it is, I'll read it when I have lotsa time. I am also going to purchase 11.22.63 next!
Joshua Starr
3. JStarr
I've read a whole lot of King (and I'd agree, IT is his masterpiece--that and The Shining), but for some reason stalled out on From a Buick 8 when I first bought it at release. This post and comment #1 are going to get me to give it another shot, though. Re: "might be the best Stephen King novel of the last ten years," though, have you read 11/22/63 yet? Really liked that one.
N. Mamatas
4. Puff the Magic Commenter
Wait, when did It become King's masterpiece? The Stand is King's masterpiece. I always thought It was a really turgid and unsatisfying slog.

Anyway, I tried reading From a Buick 8 when it first came out and gave up after three chapters. But, hey, if Mamatas says it's worthwhile, I'll try again to finish.
5. graftonio
From a Buick 8 was a pretty good book, but I agree with Puff The Stand is King's masterpiece. It was number two on my top ten though.

My favorite King "book" of the last ten years is Everythings Eventual which although it is a collection I would rank both 1408 and The Road Virus Heads North ahead of Buick 8.

@4 I had the same trouble reading Dreamcatcher and The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker but once I made up my mind to just read a little farther I was hooked on both.
N. Mamatas
6. mad_for_fantasy
I gave up The Talisman after two chapters. The Tommyknockers is still pending on my list. I read 350 pages and then found something else to read.
N. Mamatas
7. a-j
From A Buick 8 is, imho, the finest of King's books that I've read and that is because no explanation is given, indeed I am saddened that a theory can be put together from his other books. It spoils the novel for me slightly.
N. Mamatas
I have read King since Carrie when I was in High School. I'm 48 now. After, he was almost killed by a distracted van driver, his writing style totally changed. You can tell right in the middle of Dreamcatcher. The beginning of that book was brilliant, then all of a sudden it became utter cliche'.
Besides the Dark Tower books, which will never be topped (and I am kind of sad another one is coming out...it should be left alone as it is), the last great King book that is memorable to me is Bag of Bones. I have tried to finish Under the Dome. And I actually really like it. But, my goodness, King has gotten wordier with age.
Plus, it kind of disappoints me that he wants attention now for his political views more than his writing.
He is the great suspense, horror writer of our time...no doubt. But, his fire is gone and I find no excitement anymore about picking up his new works.
N. Mamatas
9. Puff the Magic Commenter
@8: "Plus, it kind of disappoints me that he wants attention now for his political views more than his writing."

Not sure what that's supposed to mean. King has always been politically outspoken, and it's always been good ole fashioned '60s campus liberalism. The Stand is an extremely political novel and we don't even need to mention Dead Zone. He also named a son after an early labor activist, so...
Allana Schneidmuller
10. blutnocheinmal
@mrhoden Agree on Bag of Bones.

When I first started reading King growing up, I read a bunch of his earlier novels like The Stand, Firestarter, Salem's Lot, The Dead Zone, The Talisman, Pet Semetary....
One of the last ones I can remember reading before I moved on was Insomnia. Which starts off sooooo slow, but by the end was one of my favorites.
I think it helped that it was the first novel I'd ever read with an elderly protagonist, which I still don't see often.

I ended up going back to King in high school to read the Dark Tower books and Black House (sequel to The Talisman). I haven't read anything since. I was waiting (pointlessly) for the last of the Dark Tower books to be put out in editions that matched my own.

I think I'll about ready for another go. 11/22/63 sounds interesting, and Full Dark, No Stars. Kinda interested in this Dr Sleep, though that means I'd actually need to read The Shining first.
N. Mamatas
11. dalgoda
@Puff The Magic Commenter:

There is no doubt that King is a 60's liberal, in the average kind of Maine way, but what I meant is this; when someone who's career is in a "kind" of decline and they need attention, what do they do? Usually, it's go to the press and start spouting their political views and try to make headlines with those said views instead of their talent. It's an attention getter, "Hey I'm still out here!" Happens all the time. King has become "king" of it. And it usually happens during the release of a new book. He started this around the time INSOMNIA came out (worst book he ever wrote, in my opinion).
As for his earlier books, I was a kid. I didn't care about his politics then, and I suppose I shouldn't now. But, it was the story that I craved in The Stand and IT and The Shining. It wasn 't the jabs at the political system or "conservative vs. liberal".
That's what bothers me, I don't read King for his political views. I don't listen to Springsteen's music for his either. I mean, shut up and write, or shut up and sing. You are not a politician, don't start sounding like one.
N. Mamatas
12. Eugene R.
What struck me most about "The Mist" was the narrator, a commercial illustrator, describing his attempt to break out of the "paint for hire" ghetto with a Warhol-style conceptual art piece ... only to have it purchased (for a nice price) for use as an advertisement backdrop, which persuades the narrator that his career is not in the high-falutin' Art World but in the commercial trenches. I always felt that Mr. King was speaking pretty directly about his own artistic ambitions and self-knowledge.

I'd plump for The Dead Zone as Mr. King's masterwork, but I could be persuaded otherwise.
N. Mamatas
13. hohmeisw
I was a huge fan of Stephen King as I grew up as well. I missed Carrie somehow, but found It and the Stand and got hooked. I'm not sure what drew me to him, but I imagine it's the same thing that resonated with me in Jurassic Park: ordinary people in a "holy shit" situation. I lost interest in my later teen years, but I agree Buick 8 is probably the best thing he's written in a long time. It's slow, it's a story about a story, and not much happens, but it is a helluva good tale.

@Justin Taylor (DT spoiler) The Crimson King wants to bring down the DT because he is trapped in it. If it falls he's free to rule the ashes of creation.

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