Novel * Stephen King * Fish Out of Water, With a Twist!* 1987
The second stanza of The Dark Tower epic – full pretentious points, thank you – is pretty much exactly what the title promises. At the end of the first book, Roland finally catches the man in black, whereupon they hang out and smoke and bullshit each other about the cosmos. There is a Tarot card reading at some point and Walter informs the gunslinger that he has access to the power of drawing: which is the removing of a person from their own world to bring them into his own. At the time, Roland has no idea what is going on, because he is clearly high as fuck and groovin’ on this purple (blade of) grass, and crashes out on the beach.
Like the lifelong flatlander that he is, Roland underestimates the ocean, naps below the high tide line, gets a crotch full of water, and that’s where this story begins. The prologue of this second book is short and brutal, and provides a clear line between itself and the first novel. Where The Gunslinger was dreamy and esoteric, The Drawing of the Three is grounded and harsh. Where the first novel was a deep dive into a single character, the second leverages that characterization against three new and very powerful personalities that make up the core of the book. This is key, since the plot, after the prologue, is as basic as it gets. Guy talks a real long walk down a real boring beach, opens three doors, and some people come out. The end! Obviously, the fun of this book – and it is that, for all of the savagery– is had in opening those three doors.
Once Roland arrives at the first door, the book begins in earnest. We are immediately introduced to Eddie Dean, The Prisoner, and in the interest of full disclosure, one of my favorite characters ever. Like, in general. So here’s the deal about these doors: they open a pathway from Roland’s world to each of these people’s brains. When Roland opens the door, he is looking through Eddie’s eyes. When he goes through the door, Roland’s essence goes into Eddie’s mind, leaving his body limp on the other side. Once in Eddie’s brain, Roland can either hang out and observe or take over completely. It is soon explained that Roland can take physical objects from Eddie’s world to his own, but not the other way around. As plot devices go, these doors are pretty cool.
Eventually, Eddie realizes that he has a passenger in his brain, and almost immediately hijinks ensue. There are a lot of fun fish out of water moments since Eddie is living in modern (well, what was modern when the book was written and is now something of a 1980’s period piece) New York City. There are two other trips to NYC, in the 60’s and 70’s respectively, and each time Roland’s reaction to our world is both fun, and at times, insightful. Used poorly, the door thing could have been an absolute train wreck as it could have just been silliness for the sake of being silly. That is not a bad thing! But it is not a Dark Tower thing. Instead of being a dark take on Perfect Strangers, however, The Drawing of the Three is a character piece in much the same way as the book that came before it. However, instead of just Roland we pick up the other major players of this epic story. Following this, we leave most of the team-building behind (with a couple of major exceptions) and get into the narrative proper.
A major undercurrent in the Dark Tower series is the notion that maybe, when the dust of civilization settles and humans are once again thrown out of a globalized society, we as a species are better off. This, of course, is a theme that occurs quite often in post-Apocalyptic fiction and as such offers much of its appeal. One of my high school daydream fantasies was to be drawn into Roland’s world, like Eddie except not a junkie. I’d show up with a dope shotgun or something and once all of this obnoxious modernity was out of the way, I could be a kickass gunslinger. As we can see from the upcoming excerpt from Roland’s impression of 20th century New York, I was clearly deluding myself. In his initial survey of his surroundings, Roland thinks “the others were fat things, for the most part, and even those who looked fit also looked open, unguarded, the faces of men who would fight – eventually – but who would whine almost endlessly before they did.” Sick burn, Roland. But of course the point is, in modern society all of our most basic survival needs are met. And before we go much further with this, let’s just get the notion of exceptions out of the way. Of course we’re dealing with generalizations, of course there are many people even in rich countries who live a life of survival, of course there are situations where even normal folk rise up and act heroically in a time of danger. That out of the way, this ain’t medieval times. High school me may have thought that he was more capable and observant and insightful than all the pathetic sheep around him (note: the term “sheeple” had yet to be used widely in the mid-90’s, but I probably would have embraced it if it had. I am not proud of this), but I’ve also never woken up worried that the neighborhood next door was going to raid my house at any time. At no point has my life consisted of subsistence farming under thrall to the local lord, or whatever. If high school me had found a magic door to Roland’s world, he would have taken my shotgun, hit me in the gut with the stock, and told me to get my fat ass out of his world. And he’d have been right to do so. We lose something as individuals when we are protected by a society as advanced and omnipresent as our own. My grandfather could render a hog and craft items and entertain himself without electricity when he was young (which apparently involved smoking random plants in a corncob pipe, so some things don’t change). Eventually, I might be able to learn that, but man… gross. There’s protection in our societal systems, and obviously, the more complex and over-arching the system the more shielded we are from the ruthlessness of survival outside of civilization.
The tension from the juxtaposition between a strong society made up of weak individuals and a weak society made up of strong individuals is the major conflict of the novel. Roland, of course, is the most capable individual in the book (almost to the point of being a kind of survivalist superhero), and he was raised in what a small society that hearkens back to a more medieval mindset. He is thrust into our society, which of course is much larger and more advanced, however there are likely few Roland could come across that could legitimately challenge him when it comes to survival. After his initial impression of the inhabitants of our society – we’re all a bunch of whining fatties – he has a sudden insight: “They are as they are because they live in the light…. They live in a world which has not moved on.” He goes on to add a personal note: “If this was what people became in such a world, Roland was not sure he didn’t prefer the dark.” He also thinks of people of his own world when they speak of times before the world moved on, that of profound loss and sadness, and Roland calls that “sadness without thought, without consideration.” Yeah, okay cool guy, but if you’re going to consider that maybe the dark is better because you can be a total badass and shoot dudes in their stupid faces whenever it suits you, perhaps consider your own biases first. Roland is an elite in his own world. The last gunslinger. He’s been trained since birth to be a warrior and a diplomat in a harsh world. The vast majority of inhabitants of Roland’s world are far less capable than our protagonist, and thus would probably much prefer not living on the edge of annihilation. Roland may prefer the dark, because his fucked up skill set allows him to thrive there, but even then he was trained in service of the light. My aforementioned hog-rendering grandfather had the ability to do and make things that I do not, but never once did I see him opt not to buy bacon at the damn store. Once society caught up and extended its umbrella over food production, there was not real point in exercising those skills anymore. Roland might see this efficiency as waste, but maybe we can give him a bit of a break. The above line of thought was a first impression, which was tempered a bit by the actions of one of NYC’s police officers who made a crazy shot and won Roland’s cold shooter’s heart. Basically, we’re a bunch of useless fat assholes, you know, except the ones who can shoot. Sometimes Roland is a simple man.
Meanwhile, we have Eddie and Susannah Dean who will grow to be a counterpoint. Most of the novel deals with their extraction, and so discussion of their growth into proper gunslingers will come in further volumes. That said, both future gunslingers share a commonality in their status as societal outsiders. On the one hand you have Eddie, a young New York junkie whose future projects poorly, living a doomed lifestyle on the underbelly of society. On the other hand, you have Odetta, in the curious position of being a rich black person in the 1960’s. Despite being on the flip side of the economic coin as Eddie, it marks her as an outsider as much as it does young Edward. Both, despite their inability to function comfortably within their respective societies, have individual strength that compensates for their outsiderness. Of course, Roland swooping in to abscond with them to another world (or, perhaps, our distant future) only reinforces his idea that people are better off without the constrictions of a massive advanced society to coddle them. This, of course, was a significant aspect of high school Matt’s daydream. I wasn’t so clueless that I didn’t realize I’m soft and lame, but that stripped of the comforts of modern society and the hot technological toys of the mid 1990’s I would be able to discover my true depths and, you know, be all bad ass. These novels speak to that desire in some of us that aspire to a more actiony lifestyle but find themselves stymied by a vast, globalized humanity. It’s no surprise that both Eddie and Susannah come from New York, which as a city represents a kind of Peak Humanity. In the previous volume Walter speaks to Roland about the problem of Size, and New York City is nothing but an asphalt and concrete example of what Walter was explaining during that endless night. Size defeats us. Eddie and Susannah are two characters who were, in their respective New Yorks, just another couple of ants in the hill. It can be argued that Susannah, at least, was something of a prominent figure, at least compared to Eddie. However, in a city of millions, and a country of hundreds of millions, a world of billions, neither character had a clear road to anything other than anonymity. However, once pulled out of this world into another place that is comparatively depopulated, well now these two rough diamonds can shine. The can go from flawed unknown flotsam in a vast city to extraordinary heroes in a dying world in need of them, and this has as much to do with their own internal strengths and flaws as it does with stripping the seething mass of humanity away from them.