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.