Thursday, December 31, 2009

Californication Redeemed: Hank Moody Faces the Music

“That’s the thing about lies. They always come out eventually.”

So says the devious Mia, Hank Moody’s ex-girlfriend and plagiarist, in the final episode of Californication’s third season. The lie in this case is that Hank had an affair with her when she was sixteen – he didn’t know it, but made no effort to verify her age. He wrote a novella about the experience and she stole it, securing his compliance with the threat of full disclosure. I waited through all of the second season for this time bomb to explode, wondering when Karen would read the book (she would know Hank’s style instantly, just as his agent Runkle did), when the lie would be exposed, when the truth would hit, when the birds would fly into the jet engine and bring Hank’s life crashing down. It didn’t happen and I wrote a post about it here, chastising Tom Kapinos for narrative cowardice, accusing him of being too soft on his characters, comparing him to the great Jenji Kohan of Weeds, who flenses her hapless creations with the glee of a drunken sushi chef every week. I had one comment on that post that struck me as odd – it was so strident in defense of the writers, and so detailed in its knowledge of the show, that I wondered for a deluded moment if perhaps Kapinos himself had posted that response. Well, whether it was him or not, someone must have gotten through to him, or perhaps he had this plan in mind all along. In any case, the last episode of this season was a heart-wrenching triumph and a total vindication of the show: a powerful return to everything I loved about it from the beginning. It may have even been the best episode ever. And the questions teem to mind: can Karen ever forgive him? Can his daughter ever forgive him? Can he somehow reassemble the meaningful life he’s been taking for granted for so long? Will the truth help his career? Will he be able to write in the glare of publicity? Will he beat the assault rap for punching Mi9a’s manager? Will she press statutory rape charges after all? Will Hank go back to New York? Suddenly all these questions have taken on a new urgency. Standing in the light of an unforgiving truth, all these people seem lovely and fragile and precious again, even Hank himself. Even Mia becomes more human, with her bewilderment and regret, living a lie, famous for nothing, unable to write a second book wounding everyone around her as her falsehoods metastasize.

I had heard that the final scene between Hank and Karen was played without audible dialogue, under the soundtrack of Elton John’s Rocket Man. Not presenting the actual scene felt like a cop-out, at least in theory. In fact it worked beautifully. We know these characters so well, and understand their crisis so intimately, that we can write the dialogue ourselves. If I taught a creative writing class, I would assign that scene to my students, and hope they would address the one remaining mystery: why Karen didn’t read Mia’s book long before (or even glance through it); and why she didn’t recognize Hank’s style at the bookstore reading featured in the final episode. At first it seemed like a plot hole. Then I thought about it a little more, and wound up writing my own version of that last argument.

Hank: It’s about Mia

Karen: Is she all right?

Hank: No, no, she’s fine. It’s –

Karen:What? What is it?

Hank: I never wanted to tell you this –

Karen: No.

Hank: I knew there was no way you could –

Karen: You slept with her.

Hank: Karen –

Karen, Oh my God., You fucking slept with her. When did this happen. Two nights ago, you said you were Runkle, but –

Hank: No, no, it was long before that, Long before we were back together

Karen When I was with Bill.

Hank: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying, it was –

Karen: She was a teenager, Hank.

Hank: Wait a second, I –

Karen: She was sixteen years old!

Hank I didn’t know that., I swear. I met her in a book store, I thought she was just another lit groupie, I had no idea –

Karen: So it was you. In the book. Punching and fucking.

Hank: That was fiction, that had nothing to do with –

Karen: Oh Jesus. Now I get it.

Hank: Karen –

Karen: I knew it! When we were sitting at that fucking reading and she was reading your words and I was telling myself no it isn’t possible it can’t be, she’s a disciple, she’s a mimic, it can’t be Hank’s book .I can’t be. What an idiot I am. I should have just read it when you practically begged me to, at Bill’s house. Then it disappeared and you never mentioned again and Mia was suddenly a writer, and … I almost looked at it so many times. But I just couldn’t. I must have known. Some part of me must have known. I just couldn’t deal with it. I looked away and I was going to keep looking away, go to New York start again and pretend I had no idea, make myself believe I was crazy because I couldn’t stand the thought that –

Hank: I wanted to tell you –

Karen: The hell you did! She blackmailed you, Hank! That’s the only explanation, that’s why she backtracked at the wedding after she scared the shit out of everyone. But it doesn’t matter if you talk now because she can’t write another book. Isn’t that it? She’s going public so you had to tell me.

Hank: I didn’t want to hurt you –

Karen Well too bad. Too fucking bad, it’s too late you piece of shit, you fucking worthless prick, you --

And this is where she starts punching him; they run outside with their daughter Becca chasing them; and then the police arrive to arrest Hank for assaulting Mia’s manager. He's in the biggest trouble of his life, all of it well-earned.

What happens next? I don’t know.

I’m just glad it finally matters again.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mustapha Mond & The Turkey Button:My Brave new World

There’s a new meme going around the foodie circles: turkey is bad.

People only eat it once a year – they choke it down at Thanksgiving along with the fruitcake and the minced yams in a perverse attempt to actually climb inside a Norman Rockwell painting and live there. They’d be better off dressing their kids in boy and girl scout uniforms and having them say the pledge of allegiance in front of the liberty bell, or letting some avuncular doctor put a stethoscope to their doll’s chest. In real life, turkey is stringy(white meat) and greasy (dark meat) and you’d be much better off with a veal chop.

I resent this new dogma because I’ve always loved turkey. It’s the perfect poultry: more savory than chicken, less fatty than duck, less gamey than goose. And it extends itself beyond the holiday, into sandwiches and hash and dinners reheated in the left-over gravy and then finally, after thirty hours of slow simmering reduction – soup! That veal chop is gone the next day. And I eat turkey more than once a year. I have it on Christmas, also – and any other day, as often as my family permits. Someone else must be doing that also – there are always Butterballs in the grocery. Not that I buy factory turkey – we get ours from a little farm in Vermont. There are no weird hormones and anti-biotics in the feed, and no creepy little button on the breast to tell me when the bird is done. I was talking to my mother about this yesterday, over another sublime turkey dinner “(The best one ever!,” she enthused, as she has every year since I was old enough to eat solid food), and she has a theory to explain the turkey haters.

It’s the button.

The button pops when the turkey is over-done. So people have gotten used to over-cooked turkey, with its tendency to fall apart when you lift it from the pan and its dry breast meat. Why does the button work this way? For safety, for security, for uniformity: to avoid law-suits and to standardize the cooking experience to extract faulty human judgment from the process. I prefer Erma Rombauer’s guideline of fifteen minutes a pound, an experienced eye and (in the last resort) a meat thermometer.

But the button bothers me. It’s like the single serving coffee machine in my insurance agent’s office. It makes ‘perfect’ coffee every time: perfectly consistent, that is. The machine looks cool with its blue back-lighting, it’s easy to use and it’s kind of fun. There’s just one problem with it: the coffee is weak. It produces a baseline average of what most people probably like and the result is bland and watery. It makes you want to dump a heap of fresh-ground coffee into a pan of boiling water, the way the cowboys did … or, failing that, get a French press.

The machine is a metaphor, just like the button, a synecdoche for the larger society with it’s meticulously unadventurous school curriculums and toxic fertilized lawns, its cookie cutter housing subdivisions, its machine-processed pop songs, action movies and romance novels.

Maybe it’s all about comfort. I think of the great argument between John Savage and Mustapha Mond, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Mond explains this theory in detail – a happy population requires drugs (theirs is called soma) and immersive films (feelies) and comprehensive brainwashing from an early age. John Savage prefers to remain sober; he chooses Shakespeare over the feelies and wants the right to be ecstatic – or miserable. The narcotized middle ground doesn’t interest him.

Mond’s response – you want that stuff? You’re welcome to it. And he exiles Savage to an island.

From my own island, where narrow cobble-stone streets unravel into sterile subdivisions and each new building,( like the renovated and expanded airport, or the police and fire department fortress going up on Fairgrounds Road), diminishes the beauty and charm of an historic village thirty miles from shore, I side with John Savage, even when I’m lost in the moors at dusk, running low on gas and praying for some sign of that over-development everyone’s complaining about. As we inch ever closer toward Huxley’s prescient dystopia, I’ll take my stand for mess and rough edges.

John Savage says, “I don’t want comfort. I want god, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Sounds good to me, but my list is a little longer. It includes strong coffee, weedy lawns and Christmas turkey, cooked right.

Your tags:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Guide to the Best of Open Salon, 2009

There was a lot of excellent writing on Open Salon this year – much more than I got to read, I’m sure. For any one new to the site, I would suggest the eerie and compelling stories of Sandra Stephens, like Peter Bird

and The Call

along with her lovely and sometimes harrowing autobiographical pieces, especially Writing Down the Bones her anorexia post:

There are many stark insights in this short essay, but this one struck me particularly hard:

Like many addicts I was a sly creature - a double agent. Even as I lashed myself with deprivation and rigid expectations of titanic accomplishment, I took a secret, gloating pleasure in the pathos of my appearance. I liked imagining that when I returned home for the holidays and attended church with my family, that people were noting my weight and looking with disapproval at my parents. My starved body was testimony to the fact that something was wrong.

I liked the way my appearance belied our happy family picture – a picture we were too-well trained not to project. You can scream with your mouth and nobody hears, I learned; I also learned that you can scream with your body, and people can hear with their eyes.

On a lighter note, I have consistently enjoyed John Blumenthal’s Hollywood posts. He’s a veteran of that crazy world and his anecdotes have the ring on truth. I would especially advise all aspiring screenwriters to read Why Writing a Spec Script Will Get You Nowhere

and Why Disney Studios Was a Screenwriter’s Nightmare.

Here’s a sample of his astringent advice:

More harsh reality: Knowing that you are desperate, most producers who option a script will pay you nothing, the idea being that he will shop your screenplay around on spec to the studios for an agreed-upon period of time, say six months. And if he actually buys an option for money, the amount will usually be peanuts. The Writers' Guild has a special term for this arrangement: Robbery.

I also enjoyed JK Brady’s intelligent posts on Canadian health care, missed her when she left for the ashram, and enjoyed her photographic essays. Her recent hilarious cry of feminist despair is worth a look, to get you started:

For political commentary here, I generally turn to Saturn Smith, one of the few bloggers who regularly migrates to the main Salon home page. Her comparison of California to Dubai, as that country teetered on the edge of collapse was particularly compelling:

Think of it: one state in a group of united states that has had to make its fortunes mostly on real estate, tourism/entertainment, and the goodwill of celebrities looking for a place to have a good time. It spends lavishly to create a place that's unlike any other within the country, a place people mark not only as a travel destination but as a desired dream locale. It's able to highly leverage what money it starts with because, even when its spending seems out of control -- beyond any means it might have -- everyone knows that its debts must be (wink, wink) guaranteed by its sister states.

People are antsy about what a Dubai World default might mean because it could signal that somewhere, a government is willing to let a state-sponsored entity fall. When you shift "entity" to "state," though, the conversation gets more complicated and, I think, closer to where it should be. What do you do, as a country, when your shining star goes supernova?

A relatively new blogger I find compelling – I fist noticed him when he commented on my Ayn Rand essay – is a lawyer who calls himself Neilpaul here. His gritty street stories of life in Boston are toucvhing and sometimes scary, always scalpel sharp, Real ‘screen scrollers’ , since ‘page turners’ seems a little outmoded here. This hopeful reflection on of his low-life legal clients gives a good sense of his stubborn blunted optimism:

As I walked back to my car I started to picture it. He would call me with a problem he couldn’t solve. Some issue he didn’t understand. Maybe he would need some money, not a fortune, just a couple of bucks. A minor amount of money that I wouldn’t miss, one less dinner in the South End, a slightly smaller 401K, one less day in Cozumel or in Europe. And I started to look forward to playing that role in his life. Not a major role, but a positive one just the same. All he had to do was call me, or hit me up, as he put it.

But he never did.

All these bloggers are wonderful and there are others Emma Peel who everybody seems to know, Connie Mack who’s less prominent here, Lisa Solod Warren who publishes on Huffington Post as well; but I want to save the end of this round up for my all-time favorite Open Salon blogger, Silksotone. She’s the one whose posts I look forward to the most. Maybe it’s because she’s writing about Mad Men, my all-time favorite television series, but really it’s the way she writes about it, the surgical brilliance with which she deconstructs every episode. I’ve long felt that Mad Men was more like an intricate novel than a normal TV show, but after my years in an MFA program, Silkstone makes me feel like I’m in a workshop again – that sinking feeling when the smartest student makes a comment on the piece in front of you that makes your own carefully worked-out critique seem puny and shallow. I hasten to add – that’s not a bad feeling! In fact, it was the feeling I liked most at Vermont College: listening to someone much smarter than me unlock all the connections and leit-motifs and image patterns and thematic sub-text in a story I hadn’t studied hard enough, or thought about deeply enough, on my own.

Silkstone did that every week this year, showing me new facets and giving me new insight into Matthew Weiner’s remarkable on-going narrative. I admit that sometimes I read her analysis before I watched the episode in question, just so I could feel smart in real time.

Here are some links and examples

From her essay on The Hobo and the Gypsy episode

While the focus is on Don, Betty reveals herself as well, saying that she’d always assumed that Don was “some football hero who hated his father” and that she’d known he grew up poor because he "doesn’t understand money," a comment which carries echoes of her father’s sneers to Don that “you people think everything is about money’ as well as Roger’s rich-boy country club put-downs. Like those two men, Betty thinks people don’t understand money if they don’t see it exactly the same way she does, as a signifier of class and position, rather than as merely a useful tool (the way Don does).
Similarly, Don and Betty have differing views of identity. Don, seeing identity as a tool just like money, argues facilely that “people change their names, Bets. You did.” To which she retorts, “I did, I took your name” – a name which she now knows is false, and thus an affront to the deep familial and social meaning that names have for her (as they did for her parents).

From her analysis of Episode 9:

Having recently hallucinated about his father (in the motel room with the two proto-hippies who robbed him) and having been sideswiped by Betty’s sour mood after their rapprochement in Rome, as well as chafing under his many contractual obligations (both at home and at work), Don grasps at Hilton’s approval, despite having just recently explained to Betty the art of keeping people wanting you rather than the other way around.

Don’s famous elusiveness that seduces all who encounter him is being eroded by his increasing commitment in all areas of his life, but never more so than when he finally lets himself want something: Not just Hilton’s approval but his love (as Hilton astutely notices). Having been as smoothly seduced by Hilton as he has seduced countless others, Don experiences a karmic turnabout when Hilton also mimics Don’s own withdrawal and parsimoniousness of feeling. Don has failed to give Hilton exactly what he wants and while that’s not an unfamiliar experience in his marriage, being rejected so soundly by a client is clearly foreign to him, leaving him scrambling and uncharacteristically clumsy, telling Hilton: I’m sure there’s a way to fit that into this.

But there isn’t. Hilton acknowledges that the campaign Don has produced is clever -- it just isn’t what he wants, which is literally the moon. Having shared moonshine with this gruff paterfamilias in the wee small hours, as well as having been made an honorary son, Don is blindsided by the rejection, as well as confounded by his rare failure to understand what a client wants. Interestingly, while missing the aspirational “man on the moon” idea, what he heard was the domestic side – about turning exotic places into home – a neat symbol of how Don himself is being tamed and domesticated.

And finally, from her most recent essay, deconstructing the season finale:

TThe episode begins with Don waking up in the spare room that we’ve seen both Grandpa and baby Gene sleeping in, making Don a cross between a newborn and a dead man, which is exactly right for someone who in the course of a couple days ends one life and starts another.

This brief note clarified so much for me, as did all her posts.

All in all, I’ve probably spent way too much time, reading and writing on Open Salon – it refines the internet’s genius for procrastination to a new level. But’s a fascinating cranky and oddly supportive community, so I’ll be sticking around, looking forward to 2010.

(Maybe Silkstone will write about “Lost” this winter!)

Living in Stephen King's World: 34 Years Under the Dome

I go back a long way with Stephen King.

I feel like I was there in the beta testing days, as I was with Open Salon. It started pretty much by accident. I was in book store on Union Square in Manhattan in the early Spring of 1975, just out of college, prowling for something fun to read and eagerly judging the books by their covers. One paperback in particular caught my eye: a close-up drawing of a girl’s face, with oval holes cut into the cover where the eyes should be, The holes showed flames, and when you turned this first layer of the cover, you saw a full page aerial-view drawing of a town on fire.


The book was called Carrie. It was Stephen King’s first novel.

I opened it up and read the faux newspaper stories and was totally hooked. At the time I had no idea who the writer was or if he’d ever write another book. But I kept my eyes open. And the books kept coming. Boy did they keep coming: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, all compulsively readable with a vivid philosophy, perhaps I should say a fully worked-out theology reverberating through their kamikaze plots and horrific set pieces. Good and Evil were going at it in these books and in the best of them the battle lines were drawn through the heart of each character, and not between them.

Jack Torrance, in The Shining was struggling for his soul against the hive of evil his son’s telepathic powers awakened in an old hotel; that an actual hive of virtually un-killable wasps figured prominently in the books early scenes struck me as a natural and effortless literary flourish worthy of at least grudging respect. But respect was precisely what Stephen King could never get in those days. Critics jeered at him and in all honesty, he jeered at himself, calling his books literary Big Macs. He spent way too much feuding with the mandarins of literature, calling them dull and pretentious, which many of them were. In his novella The Breathing Method the story-teller’s club motto says, “It is the tale not he who tells it”. That was King’s guiding principle, but even then he was subverting it, creating a style unique enough to be wittily mocked in a parody called “Id”, in The New Yorker. The target of that pastiche, It remains a nuanced masterpiece as much concerned with nature of growing up as it is with the monsters that haunt children and adults alike. None of that mattered: regardless of his best efforts, King remained a literary laughingstock, an easy short hand for mass market mediocrity.

I remember a spirited argument with someone, back in the 80s. They called King’s novel predictable. I invited them to read The Dead Zone and predict the ending. It was kind of a trick question since the climax of that novel both defeats and gratifies your expectations in spectacular fashion. The situation seems like a classic narrative box canyon, one of those narrative moments where the world is reduced to a pair of equally uninspiring choices.

During a routine campaign rally, creepy Sarah Palin type Congressional hopeful Gregg Stillson made the mistake of pressing the flesh with Johnny Smith, King’s clairvoyant hero. The touch gave Johnny a vision of Stillson becoming President and starting a nuclear war. Johnny has decided to nip this apocalypse in the bud by shooting Stillson, as he might have strangled Hitler in his crib.

So Johnny is perched in a high church balcony with a rifle between his legs, waiting for Stillson;’s big speech to begin. Will he go through with it, or chicken out? If he does go through with it, will he succeed or fail? Those seem to be the only options on the table, along with some incidental matters like, will Johnny be killed or captured or escape?

But King understands the complexity of his characters, and the bizarre random twists life can take, too well to settle for such boilerplate.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read the book.

Johnny takes his shot, and misses, and Stillson grabs a baby from the arms of a local woman campaign worker, sharing the stage with him. He uses the baby as a human shield and the moment is captured by a free-lance photographer covering the event. Johnny falls from the balcony, mortally wounded, but lives long enough to grab Stillson’s ankle and see the appalling picture on the cover of Newsweek. Stillson survives the attack, but his realm self is revealed and his political career is over.

Maybe you have to spend a lot of time plotting stories and coming up against trite conclusions and predictable forks in the narrative road to really appreciate the elegance and bravura of this climax. I’m happy to say my friend finally acknowledged King’s skill.

The critics remained aloof.

Time went on. I got my hands on a manuscript copy of Pet Sematary at a time when King’s wife had apparently forbidden him to publish it. When it finally came out, it made a bright spot in a disturbing career downturn. Some of the rap on King was right, and I had to admit it: he wrote too many books, using too many drugs, and he did it way too fast. By the time he noticed that The Tommyknockers was senseless crap, he’d already written five hundred pages in a cocain-fuelled fugue state. Why not just finish it? He had momentum, but so does a tractor trailer careening down the Monarch Pass with a ruptured brake line.

I rode out the bad times and read the bad books, and things improved again. Amid talk of his imminent retirement, novels like Misery, Delores Claiborne, and Bag of Bones seemed to make a case for King as a literary novelist all over again. And then a strange, disturbing, unhealthy thing happened.

King got discovered.

Not by the shaggy teen-agers and pot smoking college students and middle ged housewives who had loved him for years. No, King got discoivered by Literaryt high society.

He had stories printed in the New Yorker (real stories, not parodies of his books)

He got respectful reviews.

He even won the National Book Award.

He wrote a craft book about writing.

He had arrived.

There was just one problem: the new books kind of sucked. They had lost both early pulp vigor of Firestarter and the focused writerly craft of The Green Mile.These new books – written over a long period, from Dreamcatcher to From a Buick 6, from Rose Madder to Lisey’s Story were bad in a much more depressing way than something like Christine or The Tommyknockers had been. These books were actually boring. And the worse they got, the more the high falutin literary snobs praised them. Suddenly he could do no wrong, at least with that crowd.

For the rest of us, the only spark left of the writer we loved was The Dark Tower. This projected series of seven books, begun when King was in college, seemed to live at the heart of his oeuvre, animating and connecting books as diverse as Desperation, Insomnia and The Talisman. The iconic tale of the Gunslinger and the Dark Man, moving fluidly between the ruined twilight wasteland of his world and the ordinary daylight of our own (The flower that can save his world is growing in a vacant lot in ours; he has to travel between worlds to rob a drugstore for antibiotics when his monster-inflicted wounds infect) jumped off the page. But we had to wait. Each book took longer than the one before. Only four of the seven were finished and it seemed like the rest would be stillborn.

Then King had his accident.

It was as shocking to me as if a relative had been hit by that van. In or out, up or down, the man had been a major figure in my life for decades – we had even corresponded from time to time (I sent a condolence letter when Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining came out). But I must admit, my first thought that day was, “If he survives this, he’s going to finish the Dark Tower.”

Well, it turned out that this Constant Reader(as he calls us die-hards) knew the old man pretty well. As soon as King could sit up comfortably to write again he started churning out the pages at the old pace – an 2,400 of them in 18 months. And these books had the old vigor, the old craziness, the old headlong story-drunk gusto. Probably the New Yorker snobs didn’t like them.

That was fine with me.

Still, in the mainstream of his work, things were still feeling lackluster. The books were selling well but something was missing. Cell? Duma Key? Meh: familiar tropes (magical paintings, technology spawning end of the world), tired prose. Maybe he was actually winding down to that retirement, at last. How many more stories could he tell? He certainly didn’t owe us anything.

With a shrug at mortality, and the inevitable waning of even the most exuberant gifts, I wrote my old pal off. I toasted the old times: that night reading Pet Sematary in a creaky old house when the power went out -- my girlfriend and I shrieked like children. Fighting with wife, years later when I bought It in hardcover when we were broke, and reading in secret, late at night. Waiting like a Victorian hooked on Little Dorritt for the monthly installments of The Green Mile to arrive. Good times.

But it was time to walk away.

And then I started hearing about a giant new novel, one he had started and abandoned back in the good old days, and the rumors made it sound wonderful.

It was called Under The Dome.

It came out, and I bought it. I just finished reading it this afternoon.

This book is everything I hoped it would be –reiterating King’s favorite themes of enclosure and redemption, good versus evil, order versus anarchy, with all seven of the deadly sins and quite a few of the mildly toxic ones on full display.

A mysterious force field seals a small town away from the rest of the world and in one week the tidy little community of Chester’s Mill is reduced to virulent anarchy and then annihilated by the greed and arrogance (and automatic weapons and meth labs and propane cannisters) of its inhabitants. There are brilliant set pieces – the visitor’s day catastrophe, the supermarket riot, the burning of the newspaper office. There are murders and jailbreaks, lost envelopes of incriminating evidence, dogs who hear the voices of dead people, dead people who torment the living as the self-made holocaust descends. There are brawls and conspiracies, mean Selectmen and smart kids. There’s a real live hero and a actual heroine and they manage to both fall in love and save their small encapsulated part of the world. You learn how if feels to smoke methapmphetamine, breathe out of tires and commune with aliens. You tumble through the rush of events and walk out of the book with the same lung-filling sense of stunned exuberance that the surviving characters feel as they finally rejoin the world.

The book revisits many King achetypes, but deepens them. Big Jim Rennie is no single-minded ‘evildoer; like Gregg Stillson, or Randall Flagg. He actually believes he’s doing the right thing, working for the town, taking over when no one else has the brains or the nerve to do so, Colonel Dale Barbara (Iraq veteran and small town short order chef) brings to mind a long line of other tough minded, quick thinking King heroes, from the British Secret Service agent Nick Hopewell in The Langoliers to Stuart Redman in The Stand. But he;s his oown man, tormented by his own failures and mistakes; and it is that very ambivalence that winds up being central to his survival.

So King didn’t retire and I didn’t walk away and I’m very happy for both of us. This book is a spectacular return to form, an authentic gut wrenching page-turning, corpse moldering, firestorm igniting, corruption revealing, serial killer rampaging nobility celebrating masterpiece, and it brings me back full circle, even with it’s dust-jacket, unnerving for its complete lack of text: two blank flaps that continue the ominous cover illustration, nothing more.

It made me think of that day in a quarter of the way back into a different century, when a striking cover seduced me into buying a Stephen King novel for the very first time. I have another memory to add to my scrap book, now: sitting on my couch as a blizzard roared around the house outside yesterday, with my pug in my lap, quietly turning pages, in a calm pool of lamp-light, my phone turned off, with no one to bother me nothing in the world to do but read.

The good old days may be gone, but on that long snowbound afternoon, thirty-four years after I bought that cool paperback edition of Carrie in Union Square, they were back again, better than ever.