A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
— From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wastelands”
Welcome to A Read of the Dark Tower series. Join me each week as I, Constant Reader, tackle the magnum opus of Stephen King’s career for the first time. If you want to discuss in general terms or talk about these first sections, join me by commenting here.
We last left Eddie whittling, Susannah pondering the stars and the universe, and Roland slowly going mad with his conflicting memories of Jake versus No-Jake.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 1
We’re in New York City with Jake, aka John, Chambers, who’s “fighting bravely against the madness rising inside him.” Jake quit fighting on May 31, 1977, four days before school ended, in his sixth-grade English Comp class. He’s in his first year at The Piper School, a private school for wealthy kids. His dad likes to brag about Jake being in this school, so Jake imagines how dad will react when he’s admitted into the Sunnyvale Sanitarium instead.
Here’s Jake’s dilemma. Part of his mind remembers dying at 8:25 on May 9 after being hit by a car. The voices in his head argue back and forth. He remembers dying and going into another world, but he’s not dead, and he’s still at The Piper School. He remembers the man in black who had pushed him, and he remembers “the other man...Jake had almost come to love…But he let me fall. He killed me.”
What Constant Reader Learns: LOVE it that now we’re getting the “paradox of duality” through Jake’s point of view after watching Roland struggle through it in the last chapters.
We learn that what Jake told us when Roland hypnotized him back at the way station was basically true. He is a solitary kid, wealthy family, is known as “Jake” only to the three or four boys “who were almost his friends. He has an overbearing, status-obsessed father, a detached mother, and a housekeeper who serves as his friend/parent figure. He’s eleven years old and small for his age. His father works as head of programming for “the Network,” aka a TV network, chain-smokes Camels, and is very concerned with how things look. He’s proud of Jake being in The Piper School, and puts a lot of pressure on “the kid” to produce the grades—although housekeeper Greta is the only one interested in looking at his A papers.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 2
Jake’s in his English Comp class, where the kids’ final assignment was to write an essay called “My Understanding of Truth.” Jake takes his essay out, sets it on his desk, and is about to look through it one last time when he notices the door to the cloakroom. He can’t resist walking to it. Every door he sees—like this one to the cloakroom—he’s convinced he’ll open to find the answer to his dilemma. He approaches the door “with a dazzling burst of hope, a certainty that the door would not open on a shadowy closet containing only the persistent smells of winter…but on some other world where he could be whole again.” Of course, it is just a cloakroom, and the teacher sends him back to his seat.
While the teacher prattles on about summer reading assignments, Jake opens his essay, which he can’t remember writing. Under the title—“My Understanding of Truth, by John Chambers,” he had pasted two photos—one of a door, one of an Amtrak train. He turns the page, and looks at the opening of his essay with horror—now everyone was going to know he was losing his mind.
What Constant Reader Learns: As the voices in his head speed up and grow louder, Jake has become more and more fascinated with doors. So I assume this breakdown is happening concurrently with Roland’s, after he altered the future by saving Jake from being pushed by Jack Mort.
Poor little Jake is so tired of the voices and the doors and the pressure, part of him wants to crawl in the cloakroom, stick his thumb in his mouth, and give up. But, like Eddie and Susannah and Roland himself, “there was deep steel in Jake Chambers.”
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 3
We see at the beginning of this section Jake’s essay, which is too priceless not to repeat a chunk of it. It begins with quotes from “T.S. ’Butch’ Eliot” and “Robert ’Sundance’ Browning”—a nice nod to a movie about gunslingers of sorts—and proceeds thus:
The gunslinger is the truth.
Roland is the truth.
The Prisoner is the truth.
The Lady of Shadows is the truth.
The Prisoner and the Lady are married. That is the truth.
The way station is the truth.
The Speaking Demon is the truth….
Roland let me die. That is the truth.
I still love him. That is the truth.
When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar, and that is the truth.
Blaine is the truth…
What has four wheels and flies? A garbage truck, and that is the truth…
I want to go back and that is the truth.
I’ll go crazy if I don’t go back and that is the truth.
I can’t go home again unless I find a stone a rose a door and that is the truth.
Choo-choo, and that is the truth…
I am afraid. That is the truth.
Jake imagines his teacher talking to his parents about how crazy he is (Je pens que John est fou.) He barely hears the teacher telling them to read Catch-22, which she describes as “a comedy of the surreal.” I don’t need to read it, Jake thinks, I’m living it. He turns to the last page of his essay and finds another picture pasted in: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which he has colored black with a crayon.
Jake panics as he realizes his parents will stick him away in an asylum and tell everyone he’s studying abroad. No one will know what happened to him, and no one will care. He raises his hand and asks the teacher if he can “step out,” The Piper School euphemism for going to the bathroom. As he reaches the classroom door, he again feels hope that he’ll open it and find the sun-baked desert on the other side. But it’s only a hall.
What Constant Reader Learns: Holy cow. Okay, the first half of the essay are things we know about, things he’s remembering from the way station. Is the stuff about Blaine something to come? “Blaine is dangerous, and that is the truth.” Lots of choo-choo going on here, too, and a photo of an Amtrak train… a moving train in the future, or the pushcar from the mountains?
The section ends with the ominous “he never saw Ms. Avery’s classroom again.” Jake’s on the move. Like Jake himself, I find myself wishing one of these doors would open and he could stroll back into Roland’s world. Doubt it’s going to happen that easily, though.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 4
Arguing internally about whether or not he died, Jake walks through the hallways of his school, looking in classroom windows. He walks into the girls’ restroom by accident and apologizes: “Sorry. Wrong door. I thought it was the desert.” He’s sure the boys’ restroom door will lead to the desert, but it doesn’t. He hurries out of the school and thinks, with some amazement, “I’ve gone truant.” He sets off with no idea where he’s going, just hoping “his feet would carry him to the right place…as they had carried him to the wrong one not long ago.”
What Constant Reader Learns: In the middle of imagining how his teachers will find his essay and think he’s crazy, and set the whole fou thing in motion, Jake hears Roland’s voice: “You’re not crazy. You’re lost and scared, but you’re not crazy and need fear neither your shadow in the morning striding behind you nor your shadow at evening rising to meet you. You have to find your way back home, that’s all.” So is this some psychic connection to Ro? A fluke? Is this something Roland said to Jake back at the way station (I will look this up but don’t remember offhand).
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 5
The thing that started Jake on the road to crazytown happened three weeks earlier. He leaves home to walk to school. He’s thinking about going bowling afterward. He crosses the street and then, “with three minutes left in his ordinary life, Jake Chambers walked beneath the unseen umbrella of that force which Roland called ka-tet.”
As he approaches the corner where he died before, Jake sees the same hot dog vendor, the same woman with her Bloomingdale’s bag, which he knows has a doll inside it. He wants to stop, to not go to the intersection and die again, but he can’t stop his feet from moving him toward his destiny (ka!). Down the street, he can see the speeding Cadillac that hits him and knows the man in black is moving into position behind him…only nothing happens. He almost falls off the curb, but a guy with a boombox pulls him back.
“That was when it happened; that was when he split down the middle and became two boys.” Half of his mind screamed “alive” and the other, “dead.”
What Constant Reader Learns: I love the way Stephen King builds the tension in a section where we basically know what’s going to happen (or what’s NOT going to happen) by giving us a countdown. When Jake leaves his house to walk to school, he has 1,500 seconds before things will change forever. He stops to look in a store window, and has 720 seconds until “the end of his life as he had always known it.” Fifty-three seconds as he approaches the corner where he died.
I’m a little confused (what a shocker). If Jake walks under the unseen force, wouldn’t that force be “ka” and not “ka-tet”? I’d been thinking of “ka” as the force of fate, and “ka-tet” the gathering of folk joined by “ka.” Maybe it’s all semantics.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 6
After his non-death/death, Jake goes on to school and halfway convinces himself nothing really happened—maybe just a psychic flash. Except as the day goes on, he can’t let it go. Part of him is at school, but part of him is scared and alone in a desert. By the time he goes to bowl after school, the other part of him has found the pump in the stable and had some water. He bowls badly. He sees the world around him, but behind it, he sees that other world. And the arguing voices in his head go on and on.
What Constant Reader Learns: There have been some great Seventies imagery in this and the previous section. Jake watches “Hollywood Squares” after school, and a “Chicano” guy carrying a boombox is the one who pulls him off the curb. When’s the last time you saw anyone carry a boombox? Probably 1977.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 7
Not surprisingly, Jake’s parents don’t notice anything amiss. He goes to bed and listens to the voices in his head continue to argue. He knows both voices speak the truth, and pleads with them to shut up, but they won’t. The notion comes to him that he should go and open the bathroom door, and the other world will be there, along with the rest of himself. But it was only a bathroom.
What Constant Reader Learns: Stephen King is really drawing this section out, but I’m loving it. We only got glimpses into Roland’s descent into madness, and then only what he told Eddie or Susannah, because the story stayed in their points of view. I thought that was odd at the time, but now I realize why he did it, now that we’re watching Jake fall apart. If SK had told all of the push and pull of Roland’s voices, this section with Jake going through the same thing would have been boring and redundant. The way he did it, it’s really fresh and effective. Signs of a storytelling master at work!
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 8
We rejoin the truant Jake in the present again, whose mind is described as “a nightmare wasteland where there had been no peace, no rest, no respite from pain…as his mind buckled under the steadily increasing pressure of the phantom voices and memories.” He’s been losing more and more “normal boy” time as his perceptions become split between his outer life and his memories. But as of today, when the world would find out from his final essay that he’d lost his mind, “the game was over…He had given up. He had gone truant.”
What Constant Reader Learns: The tension is building again. Where will Jake go? Where will ka take him?
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 9
As he walks, Jake becomes more aware of his surroundings, and realizes what a perfect spring day it is. He comes across two businessmen playing tic-tac-toe on a construction wall in their business suits, and Jake actually jokes with them before moving on. Instead of the feeling of doom and madness he’s been feeling, Jake begins to feel as if something really good is about to happen. Finally, he realizes the voices have stopped.
What Constant Reader Learns: Hmmm….so the voices have stopped. Which means something is about to happen. Jake likens it to a couple of guys arguing, who stop and run side-by-side to the window to watch a passing parade before they resume their argument. But will it really be something good? Not that I don’t trust the author, but, well, this is Stephen King, after all.
The Waste Lands — “Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust”: Key and Rose, Section 10
Jake is “digging the day,” wondering over the cessation of the voices. The sensation of knowing creeps over him again, and the word White comes to him. “It’s the coming of the White,” he says aloud. He keeps walking, and “as he reached the corner of Second and Fifty-fourth, he once more passed under the umbrella of ka-tet.”
What Constant Reader Learns: Wha… what kind of ending is that to put on the midpoint of this section?
That’s it for this week! Next week—same time, same place—we’ll finish reading Key and Rose, the second chapter in “Book One Jake: Fear in a Handful of Dust.”