Stephen King's trunk show
Novelist's 30-year-old manuscript is a lightweight literary noir
Various authors have laid claim to the title of "world's best-selling novelist" over the years, and there's no doubt that Stephen King is a worthy contender for that honor. He's so popular that one of his leftover manuscripts, a book he didn't even consider good enough to submit to publishers in the first place, is now appearing on bookshelves across the country.
King's latest, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, is what the author refers to as a "trunk novel"; that is, a manuscript that has been stashed away unpublished for some years. If it weren't for the King name -- and its power to ring cash registers -- it's likely that the book would have stayed in that trunk. Not because Blaze is bad, which it's not, but because there doesn't seem to be any particular need for it.
King gives a brief discussion in the book's foreword of why he decided to revise and publish the book now, more than 30 years since he wrote it. To his credit, he freely admits Blaze is recycled, rather than new material, although his reasons for unearthing it aren't clear. (King does note that his earnings for the book will go to the Haven Foundation, which supports free-lance artists who have suffered disabling illness or injury.)
Set vaguely in the recent past, Blaze is the story of Clayton Blaisdell Jr. and his friend George Rackley, a pair of con men and petty thieves. Blaisdell is simple-minded -- when he was a child, his father threw him down the stairs, fracturing his skull -- and Rackley is dead.
These two unusual factors work together in a strange harmony. Blaisdell isn't smart enough to commit crimes on his own, but with his partner's advice and urging, he's able to get some things done. Whether Rackley is an imagined or supernatural presence in unclear, but the effect on Blaisdell is the same either way.
One of the last jobs that Rackley planned before his death was the kidnapping of Joseph Gerard IV, the infant scion of a wealthy family. Blaisdell, urged on by the spirit of his dead friend, decides to take the baby on his own and hold him for ransom. This action leads to predictably harrowing results.
Even more interesting than the contemporary thread of the story, however, are the flashbacks to Blaisdell's childhood, which show him growing up in an orphanage after being taken away from his abusive father. Those stories of his hardscrabble upbringing have a poignancy the rest of the book can't match.
It's no mean feat to take a cold-blooded criminal -- a kidnapper, no less -- and turn him into a sympathetic, if still unlikable, character. But King has done it with Blaisdell. By showing us the tortured life that he has suffered since childhood, Blaze makes us feel for this poor, damaged man. We don't excuse his crimes -- it's unlikely that anything could make us do that -- but in the end, we do at least understand.
If Blaze was initially as bad as King claims in the foreword, it begs the question of how much revision it took to get it into its final form. His caveats don't exactly inspire readers to expect the best. For all of that, however, the book is certainly entertaining. It's not as polished, nor as fully developed, as the best of King's books, but it's not going to embarrass him or tarnish his reputation either.
King likens the story to the work of James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and other gems of noir fiction. It's an apt comparison, even if it doesn't match up to those heights. Blaze can best be described as a fair example of lightweight literary noir. It's not as fine as Cain, nor as down-and-dirty as the hardboiled works of Richard Stark or Jim Thompson (two other writers King cites as inspirations in his intro), but it's still a worthwhile read.
From the Chicago Sun-Times, June 17, 2007