`Duma Key': New Stephen King novel

January 23, 2008 12:58:07 PM PST
Consider the Stephen King kitchen, where the ingredients in the pantry are like comfort food: They're always ready for another recipe.

There's the damaged and creative protagonist ("The Dark Half," "Misery," "Lisey's Story"), the menacing residence ("Bag of Bones," "The Shining"), the vaguely cryptic friend with unusual abilities ("The Green Mile," "Hearts in Atlantis"," "Dreamcatcher"), the old woman who channels the supernatural ("The Stand"), the ancient evil resurfacing ("It," "Needful Things," pretty much everything else).

Odd thing is, like the most able blend of chef and short-order cook, King somehow always manages to combine the raw materials into an entirely new and compelling dish. His newest, "Duma Key," may feel like fast food and even eat like fast food, but King grows more sophisticated with each passing year - while never pricing his audience out of the market.

"Duma Key" is not as good as King's most recent novel, "Lisey's Story." But it's never dull. It's also very much a tale of characters over plot, which is a good thing.

It has grown obvious, particularly in the years since a man in a van ran him down and almost killed him in 1998, that King is searching for something. The best guess: He's examining whether human beings have the power to stave off the inevitable - death, decay, unthinkable things that lie in the realms beyond what we know. The narrator of "Duma Key" is a rich, self-made Minnesota construction executive named Edgar Freemantle, who is dealing with all the above. Like King, Edgar got a serious case of man interrupted, when a crane on a construction site collided with his truck, crushing his right arm and banging his brain around inside his skull.

It is a changed Edgar Freemantle who awakens from this trauma. He struggles to remember words. His anger drives away his longtime wife, and, realizing he is entering a new life, Edgar leases a waterfront house on Duma Key, a desolate, overgrown barrier island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. He decides to take up an old pastime, painting - no small affair for a man with one arm.

That's the first 35 pages. The next 576 are dedicated to what happens when Edgar Freemantle paints and draws inside the house, which he dubs Big Pink and learns has been a retreat for such geniuses as Salvador Dali and Keith Haring.

It seems that Edgar's drawings have power, and not just the aesthetic kind. Has his accident opened a window into another kind of artistic expression that is ... more concrete? Does the overgrown brush of Duma Key hold secrets to a past malevolence that is controlling Edgar's art? Do the only other permanent residents of Duma Key, the enigmatic Wireman and the aged Elizabeth Eastlake, have anything to do with the increasing oomph of Edgar's artistic abilities?

A clue lies in a statement Edgar makes early on: "Healing is a kind of revolt," he tell us. "And as I think I've said, all successful revolts begin in secret."

Today, even as they sow unease across the culture, King's tales typically offer some comfort in their consistency. They possess certain expectations: that creativity channels darkness; that what appear to be weaknesses or disabilities are, in the Kingscape, strengths; and that a small band of intrepid believers can vanquish powerful evil. Come to think of it, this sounds like mythology, American style.

The usual King devices are present: a penchant for dropping in pop-culture references to frame events; liberal applications of portent ("I wish with all my heart that I could have seen her better, because I never saw her again"); the convergence of multiple, seemingly unrelated stories like tributaries into a raging river; and a dreamlike climax in which characters transcend their abilities on their personal proving grounds.

But again, "Duma Key" works not in spite of these chestnuts but because of them. Somehow King can shuffle the same cards and consistently deal new storytelling hands. It is, in essence, his own supernatural accomplishment.

Yes, there are occasional cliches in the book, but that facet of King's writing is overcriticized. Edgar Freemantle is not a writer; he's a painter. And while he tells his story in a compelling way, he also sounds a lot like you and me - prone to lapse into comfortable language occasionally. This is not an apologia for stylistic laziness, but Stephen King has always been astute in representing reality - even when reality is seemingly workaday.

This is not to say that the story is perfect. It's not. At 611 pages, suffice it to say that a partnership between Stephen King and some e-book publisher could help preserve the nation's forests well into the 22nd century.

But "Duma Key" and its message - that imperfection can produce strength - are honorable entries in the more sophisticated Stephen King canon of the 21st century, the one that says human frailty and damage are not the destinations of a horror tale but merely its starting points.

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