Richard Bachman is pretty prolific for a dead guy, isn’t he? He died in 1985, of cancer of the pseudonym, having published Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man, and Thinner. Yet, we saw him pop up again in 1996, with his “newly discovered” book The Regulators (coincidentally an alternate universe to Stephen King’s Desperation. Funny how that happened.) And here he is again in the year 2006 with yet another “new” book (actually written pre-Carrie) called Blaze. And really, he’s not even done! OK, he doesn’t have any more new book discoveries (yet — for all we know there will be more) but he’s going to turn up as a character on Sons of Anarchy in 2010. That dude gets around.
Blaze is pretty clearly influenced by John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In this telling, they’re not on a farm, Lennie is represented by the titular Blaze (Clayton Blaisdell Jr.), and the big conflict is around a baby, not someone’s wife. George does remain named George, but in this story, he’s dead and has been for a while. Which doesn’t stop him from being an important character.
Not that this book is particularly supernatural, don’t get that idea. While later Bachman writings like Thinner and The Regulators do have supernatural elements, this book is more in the style of earlier Bachman. Yes, Lennie — I’m sorry, Blaze — does hear from George regularly, but it’s George as storied in Blaze’s memory banks, saying what Blaze thinks George would probably say, because being dead, George is just a memory now. And Blaze knows that. Most of the time, anyway.
In addition to not being supernatural, Blaze is Bachman-style in its cynicism. There’s some sunshine here, but not very much, and what there is gets crushed out pretty quickly. Blaze lives in a world that has never been nice to him, and it’s turned him into someone pretty dangerous. For one thing, Blaze was abused pretty severely as a child, culminating in an attack that both physically deformed him and robbed him of his burgeoning intellect. If that were all, it would be bad enough, but it might not have resulted in the adult Blaze that we end up with. He may have an unattractive dent on his forehead, and he may have been rendered mentally compromised, but he shows signs of being what we might call a gentle giant-type character. But of course, the mistreatment carries on in different ways when he’s shipped off to a group home. Friends and protectors are few and far between. And the ones that do appear — well, they die. The result is that when he eventually ends up out of the system, he has all kinds of unaddressed trauma, his disabilities haven’t been managed or even accommodated, and he hasn’t really been taught how to survive independently. So he’s easily manipulated. As Bachman puts it, he’s a good tool. He’s also abnormally large, which makes him a pretty dangerous weapon if that’s the kind of tool a manipulator wants to use him as.
Given the apparent (but believable) lack of programs to help a person like Blaze become a healthier person and productive citizen — which could be done, we’re given to understand that he’s intellectually disabled, but he definitely appears to be educable within reason — it’s probably just as well he hooked up with George. Remember Forrest Gump? Blaze is at least as smart as that character was. (also probably about the same level of problematic, albeit in different ways. I don’t want to dwell on it — it is what it is — but here’s the reminder that Stephen King’s writing of intellectually disabled characters as special conduits of God or Gan or whatever is problematic, and, while it’s different, so is his portrayal of Blaze. Although I still think Blaze is largely based on Steinbeck’s Lennie, and discussing how Lennie is problematic and Blaze as an homage is problematic is more literary class than I intend to do here.) Anyway, George. George is smart (a good Democrat, too, take that for what it’s worth) but bitter, angry, and not inclined to work shit jobs under a Reaganomics economy. A lot of George’s bitterness also stems from bad experiences that indicate societal problems, just like Blaze, and he isn’t totally wrong to be angry about that. A society that gave a damn about not creating men like him would address some of the things that went wrong in his childhood at the societal level (Blaze, too) but that’s not the world we live in. Bachman wants to make this point here, clearly.
So what George does instead is run cons and scams. That’s not great, but he’s not violent, nor does he expect Blaze to be most of the time. He finds ways to use Blaze as his partner — some that even put his size to good use — without turning him into a killing machine. So that’s… good? But then George, who has a habit of running his mouth, even to the wrong people, gets killed by someone who took offense. Which is where we come in. See, George had been telling Blaze about his retirement plan — a one-and-done scam(?) that would give them enough money to live on for the rest of their lives, so they don’t have to keep pulling little cons and getting periodically busted. George’s idea is to kidnap a rich family’s baby. Babies can’t ID you, so when you get the ransom, you can return it instead of killing it. Have the marks drop the ransom money from a plane. That way, they can’t have cops waiting at the ransom drop-off site.
So Blaze, alone and friendless and also vulnerable without someone to direct (manipulate) him, decides he’s going to do this one-and-done himself. Dead George urges him on.
The meat of the present-day story is probably pretty predictable. Once he has the baby, he falls in love with the baby. Dead George urges him to kill the baby, which horrifies him, especially when he stops to consider that since Dead George is really him, some part of him must also want to do that. He definitely fights that urge, though — there’s no real suggestion that Blaze is going to intentionally hurt the baby at any point, which is sort of a relief. Blaze does, however, leave all kinds of clues behind and although he has some luck, the cops do pretty quickly piece together who took the baby. The Lindbergh kidnapper, Blaze is not.
So what it ends up coming down to is a showdown, in the snow, on the campus of the crappy group home Blaze was sent to after being bounced down the stairs on his head by his father. The baby lives. Blaze dies. We’re sort of given the idea that the baby’s rich parents are kind of shitty in the way that rich people can be, but not so much that it seems OK to take their baby. And we’re given to understand that Blaze has fallen in love with the baby, but he’s clearly not competent to take care of him (in large part because his idea of earning money is kidnapping a baby for a million dollars in ransom). So, we’re sad, but I think we’re also kind of onboard for this ending? I definitely felt sad for the shitty life Blaze had — that I think could have been prevented from getting so shitty at several points along the way — but it’s not like I wanted The Adventures of Blaze and Baby, either. And Blaze getting caught by the cops, going down for kidnapping, and going away for life (I don’t know if kidnapping would get you life normally, but this is going to be Blaze’s third strike if he gets caught, so that would do it anyway) would probably be an even bleaker ending.
Here’s the thing. It’s not a bad story. It’s engaging. You can’t help but kind of like Blaze. You even kind of like Dead George sometimes. The baby’s a baby, it’s cute. And the story ends how it probably should. But the deeper message is… the world is full of shitty, uncaring people and systems that turn out broken, dysfunctional people who then do more shitty things. And in the end, death. It’s not exactly a heartwarming message, and it’s not super deep either. Not that that will bother you while you’re reading it — like I said, it is engaging.