The Definition of An Asshole is a Guy Who Doesn’t Believe What He’s Seeing


So, Thinner is a King book that’s really a Bachman book. Except that it has a load of King thrown in.

I’m not going to look this up right now, but I sort of think that the secret of King’s pen name was out by the time this story was published. Or shortly after, if not before. I think this story would have done it regardless. Yes, it definitely has a Bachman feel about it — it fits neatly in the Angry White Man category. Billy, the protagonist, feels very much like a more upper-class version of Barton George Dawes, from Roadwork. I don’t have specific quotes or events to back that up — it’s just how he feels to me. And Ginelli is like a much more layered version of Magliore, also from Roadwork. And everyone — all the major and minor players who aren’t literal children — is awful in this book. I mean it — this book is depressing from the jump because there are really no good guys in it. It’s not the downer ending that gets me, it’s that no matter how they end, everyone including the main character, the antagonist, the main character’s wife, the main character’s friends, the antagonist’s family, the legal people — they’re all awful, hateful people who drink and do coke and cheat and lie and curse and kill. You sort of don’t want anyone to live anyway — certainly none of these characters deserve to triumph. Except maybe for Billy’s daughter, who’s young enough to still be innocent — though if she got to grow up, she’d probably be awful too.

I have some love for this book — I believe it’s the second King book I ever read, and I both loved it and was creeped out by it as a middle schooler. I’m much harder to scare now, and I find I’ve lost patience for protagonists like Billy, who take no responsibility for anything and blame anyone else they can — especially a woman.

Seriously, Billy spends the entire story blaming his wife for all kinds of things, justified or not. Yes, she should definitely not have been jerking him off while he was driving. But it’s not like he told her to stop. She shares some blame for the accident, but it still takes two — and it was his hands on the wheel and his feet on the pedals. And he follows that up by being angry that she’s concerned about him, being angry that she’s worried about the effects of his apparent illness on his daughter, and being angry that she did what I think a reasonable spouse would do in this situation — went to a doctor for advice. That’s just too much angry. She didn’t deserve all that.

The story is also full of racist stuff. The doctor tells N-word jokes while he snorts coke. Speaking of which, were people snorting coke that openly in 1980-whatever? Because I would never want to see that doctor again for several reasons. And all of the Roma racism. I know that we were calling Roma people by the Gypsy slur back then, but was hate toward them as common and open as this? I’m too young to remember, and I might not have seen it anyway. But re-reading it now was shocking; I can’t imagine even being around people who are this openly bigoted, let alone living in a whole town of them.

King’s choice of weights in this book is a little odd too. Billy is right under 250 at the beginning of the book. That’s big, yeah, but for a 6 foot 2 man, it doesn’t scream imminent death to me. I’m not a doctor, of course, but this book describes Billy as having 3 chins! I know a 300+ pound man shorter than that who has barely a double chin, but not 3 chins. Everyone carries their weight differently, but these dimensions don’t make sense to me. They also start worrying about his health as he’s losing weight way before I would think they would. Maybe that’s a function of how fast it’s happening, but seriously, people are warning him about the dire consequences of losing too much weight at like 170. That may be thin for a 6 foot 2 man, but again, I don’t think it’s insane. I was also not thinking that he should be having heart problems and whatnot when he was still in the 130s, but since he’s tall, maybe I’m off. It’s just a bit weird.

At least in this book, they call out the Angry White Man thing. The Curse of the White Man From Town, huh? Feels a little more self-aware than previous Bachman books, like he was older and had learned at least a little.

It also has, you know, a curse – actually several – what with magical weight loss and people turning into alligators and extreme gross-out acne. This is very much King territory, not Bachman territory. And just like I see hints of previous Bachman in Billy and Ginelli, I also see some random hints of King — married couples go to Mohonk to rekindle the relationship, for one. He also calls himself out — “you were starting to sound like a Stephen King novel for awhile there” — which is a very King-like thing for Bachman to do. I assume that line was written before his secret was out, anyway. Or maybe he just thought it was funny.

I went on a wild goose chase at one point looking up Empirin. I’m not familiar with the brand, so when the mob-doctor guy gives it to Billy and says he’s not giving him pain-relief narcotics because of the health risks, and the Empirin was also dangerous and really should be aspirin, I got curious. If anyone else is wondering, Empirin really is — or was — just aspirin. Except before it was just aspirin, it also had something called phenacetin in it. This was a stronger painkiller, though I guess not strong enough to be an actual narcotic. It got banned for causing kidney problems in the early 80s, though. I would think it was off the shelves by the time this book was published, but the article I was reading about the banning suggested that the ban enacted in 1980 would take a year or so to finalize, so phenacetin-containing Empirin might still have been on the shelves when King was writing this book and would have been in recent memory when it was published. This is a tangent, but it caught my interest.

I am less impressed with this book than I was the first time. I still like it a lot better than Rage and Roadwork, at least, but I am impatient with affluent Angry White Men both real and fictional. I find it hard to root for Billy. It works if I read it as a judgment on Affluent White Society — and at least in part, I think that’s how it was meant — but it’s still hard to root for anything or anyone because nobody is truly sympathetic. That might be a statement in and of itself, that we’re all just awful, but if so, it’s a really depressing statement and I prefer the base of optimism that usually finds its way into King stories, but not necessarily Bachman stories.


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