(Hearts in Atlantis)
I’m not sure exactly what this book is. Not going to lie, when I first got it and read it, probably sometime late in my teens or early in my 20s, I thought it was a novel. The characters and stories intersect, after all, and wrap up, kind of. There are common characters and themes that run through them. But I’ve seen it described as a collection of novellas or short stories or short stories and novellas, and that’s probably closer to the truth — the stories within may be connected in various ways, but they’re also separate in important ways as well.
When I looked it up, I saw a reviewer note that this book was made for 1) fans of Stephen King, 2) Fans of the Dark Tower series, and 3) people who were children in the 50s. I only meet two of those requirements — I wasn’t born until 1980. I obviously don’t remember the 50s, I don’t remember Vietnam, I don’t remember the antiwar protests and related unrest. I’m not a historian or researcher or in any way an expert on those topics, either — hell, my mother is too young to remember these things fully. I have your basic cultural knowledge that comes through the osmosis of growing up in America. A lot of that may actually come from Stephen King, in fact — Vietnam may not always be as explicit as this, but it’s definitely a shadow in the background of any number of his stories. So maybe this book isn’t really for me. I don’t feel unwelcome in it, exactly, though. I do feel like I’m probably missing details — some I can look up and have, some I probably haven’t bothered with, and some I may have missed entirely — and I am sure that I’m probably missing a lot of nuance around the subject of the Vietnam War. I can tell that it’s there, but without firsthand accounts or extensive research, I’ll probably never really grok it. Maybe the only way to really grok it is to have been there. Nevertheless, I’m happy to read the book.
We start off before Vietnam gets going, of course, with “Part 1: 1960: Low Men in Yellow Coats”. This is probably my favorite story of the book, and it’s the one most closely tied to the Dark Tower. In it, we learn about the Low Men (we’ll see them again), we meet Ted Brautigan (we’ll see him again), we learn that Ted is a Breaker and that the Crimson King wants Breakers (the why of this isn’t really addressed, but we should know at this point that the Dark Tower depends on the Beams to stay up and that the Beams are breaking down, so we can probably make some inferences. Or not. It doesn’t matter, we don’t have to know to enjoy this story.) Ted Brautigan says a thing we may have heard before, too: “All things serve the Beam.”
Dark Tower connections aside, this book as a whole, and this story in particular, is full of good quotes. Ted tells Bobby to read sometimes for the story — not to be like the book snobs who won’t do that — and sometimes for the language — not to be like the play it safers who won’t do that — and to treasure the books that have both great stories and great language. This is great advice, and I recognized it as such as soon as I read it. And as a writer who’s said with conviction that to be a writer, you must also be a reader, King probably knows this as fact. Ted also explains how you have to prime the pump of a book, because it won’t give anything to you until you give something first. More good advice. Bobby’s thoughts about the realistic monsters of Lord of the Flies, and about how life would be so much better if it had a plot, also ring true to me. And there are lots more — I could probably do a whole post that’s nothing but awesome quotes about life and literature pulled out of this book.
“Part 2: 1966: Hearts in Atlantis” is the next story, and you’ll notice it shares the title with the book. By “hearts” King means the card game Hearts. Except when he’s talking about the metaphorical hearts of the people who live in Atlantis, of course. If you ever find yourself wondering whether King means one thing or the other thing, stop wondering. It’s always both. Atlantis here, on the other hand, seems to simply refer to the Vietnam era. I’m unsure whether that’s something that King came up with or something that people of the time actually thought about (besides King). I tried googling various iterations of “Vietnam era” and “Atlantis” and mostly just came up with stuff about this book, or the movie based on it. But I could easily imagine a bunch of antiwar activists of the time thinking of and talking about themselves as Atlanteans. Not finding it on the internet doesn’t mean that no one ever said it before.
I also like this story quite a bit, and it has its own share of good quotes. In addition to quotes, this book, and this story, is also full of references. Lots of them to other books. They can be both subtle and not. Lord of the Flies is an important book in this book, in both this story and the previous one. Funnily, though, the narrator of this story mentions that he’d missed Lord of the Flies in high school, opting for A Separate Peace instead — and this story reminds me of A Separate Peace in some ways. The previous story also reminded me of Lord of the Flies in some ways, and I assumed that was intentional — it was pretty overt and called out in several places. Was this story supposed to remind me of A Separate Peace? It’s been a long time since I read that one, and I don’t remember all the details, but I get that kind of vibe from it, plus the running theme of internal battles in A Separate Peace seems to also play out here. I think that he probably mentioned the book intentionally, but either the comparison is subtler here or I just don’t remember that book as well, so I can’t be certain.
“Part 3: 1983: Blind Willie” is the third story. Honestly, it’s a pretty weird one. Willie is doing penance for his part in the attack on Carol in the first story. His penance is that he leaves for work like he’s going to an office job, changes into a disguise and moves to a different office and leaves that way, looking like he’s a heating and cooling repairman, goes to a hotel bathroom and changes again, this time transforming himself into a blind beggar (and borrowing Bobby Garfield’s last name and using his stolen baseball glove in the process.) He collects a bunch of money, pays off a cop, and donates his change to churches. In his spare time, he writes lines about how sorry he is for hurting Carol.
Frankly, this is weird. It’s well-written and engaging, no question, but I don’t get why Willie thinks it’s penance. I don’t really see how this helps. Nor do I understand why he goes blind for a couple of hours a day — it seems to have something to do with his experience in Vietnam, but it doesn’t seem physical. I also wonder — as Willie himself apparently does — how much his wife knows. Because, like, this dude is leaving the house every day dressed as an office drone, but he’s not doing that. Or even being himself after he leaves. How could she not know? On the other hand, how could she know, and just… not say anything?
Given that the first two stories have vibes that remind me of other stories, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was supposed to remind me of something too, but if it is, I don’t know what. I either haven’t read whatever it is or I’m not picking it up.
“Part 4: 1999: Why We’re In Vietnam” is the next one. These stories are getting progressively shorter at this point. This is Sully-John’s story. He’s Bobby and Carol’s friend in the first story. He’s Carol’s boyfriend in the second story, but they’re already growing apart and break up before the end. And in the third story, we learn that in Vietnam, Willie saved his life — Sully-John isn’t aware that Willie helped beat up Carol back in the first story. He may not care, either, compared to having his life saved. His feelings about Carol are complicated and somewhat angry anyway.
Complicated and angry is a good description of Sully, too. And Vietnam vets generally — this is basically an exploration of what life is like for Vietnam vets, not only immediately post-war, but also decades after. It’s an exploration of an idea that we’ve probably all heard before — that wars end not when governments pull out, but when the people who had to be involved in them die. One bit at a time for years and years. What does that look like? This story posits what that might look like, anyway. You may say that Stephen King wouldn’t know — he doesn’t appear to have served. I looked it up and found a story in a listicle (so I don’t know, take it with a grain of salt) that says he was found unfit for military duty based on “terrible vision, punctured ear drums, flat feet and abnormally high blood pressure for someone who was only in his early 20’s at the time.” The entry goes on to say that King wasn’t much bothered since he spent a lot of time protesting the war. I think this last bit is true, anyway, at least sort of. I don’t know that he was especially radical about it, but that he was against the war and said so seems like a given (and he’s been saying so in his stories for longer than I’ve been alive, so there’s that.) But putting oneself into another person’s shoes is what a fiction writer does, over and over again, and I trust him to put his feet into a Vietnam vet’s shoes as much as anyone else’s.
“Part 5: 1999: Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling”. This is the last story and, I think, the shortest. It’s also the one that wraps up all the other parts, more or less. Sully-John dies in the previous story, and Bobby comes back to the old hometown for the funeral, drawn there by the delivery of his old baseball glove, the one that was stolen by Willie in part one, remembered by Carol in part two, used by Willie to beg in part three, and evidently fell out of the sky for Sully in part four. It was found on his hand when his body was discovered. And inside of it? A message from Ted. A message that Bobby is supposed to give to Carol, who is presumed dead at this point due to her involvement with a violent and radical antiwar group, but who also turns up at the funeral, in her new identity. We don’t find out what happened to Willie and how he no longer has the glove, and we don’t find out what happened to Pete, narrator of the second story, and I think I’d like to know those things. But if you’re looking at it as one cohesive story that started with Bobby, Sully-John, Carol, and Ted, this is the story that wraps them up, and that’s pretty good — especially since it’s not really one cohesive story anyway. It’s something else.
There was a movie made of this book. I have no idea how they handled the various stories within, or if they did, because I haven’t seen it. I’m not sure I want to. You could probably take the first story and make a good movie. Maybe you could do that with the second story, too, though I’m less sure. I don’t know how you’d combine them for a movie, though, and in my head, these stories belong together.