“New Fiction” * Stephen King * The Sixties * 1999
Hearts in Atlantis consists of two novellas and three short stories which are loosely connected to one another through the characters introduced in the first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats.” These stories are organized in chronological order, with “Low Men” being set in 1960 and the final story, “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” taking place in the publishing year of 1999. All of the stories are in some way related to the American experience in Vietnam. The principal characters involved with these stories either protested the war, went to the war, or were otherwise involved with the actions overseas. While none of these stories are actually about protest or battle, Vietnam is the star everything revolves around.
Well, that’s not quite true. While Hearts in Atlantis is some of King’s best work, it is for the most part a step away from genre fiction and is just straight up literary fiction. Of course, when I first picked this book up eighteen years ago (shudder), I didn’t care about any of that. All I was interested in was “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” because that is a Dark Tower story, which is of course at the center of everything. This collection dropped right in the middle of that terrible void between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. It was a dark time. Back then, I was still in the habit of picking up anything King wrote, but all I really wanted from the man was a continuation of Roland’s adventure. You can imagine my excitement when I realized that the first story presented was all about the Tower. Kind of.
Turns out, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is a sort of preview about later events in the Tower series. At the time all this stuff about the Crimson King and the low men was all new information, which of course I was desperate for. I tore through the story about Bobby Garfield and Ted Brautigan as quickly as possible. Shortly after finishing the entirety of the collection, I pretty much forgot it all besides the first story. If asked, I might have expressed a vague disappointment in the lack of Dark Tower biz in the other stories, but otherwise they were fine. Whatever.
All of this illustrates why it is important to revisit books every now and again. Good stories have a fantastical ability to grow and change over the years. This ability is, of course, directly tied to the reader and their experiences over the years. Obviously the book doesn’t change, the person does. The last eighteen years of life have been very instructive – I’ve done a lot of things, been to many places, and have met all kinds of people. This time, reading through Hearts in Atlantis, the experience was very different. For one, King finished his Tower saga, and so “Low Men in Yellow Coats” presents nothing new on that front. More importantly, however, I’m in a better position to fully appreciate what is here. These stories – the two novellas in particular – represent some of the best King fiction available. “Low Men” is less remarkable for a few tidbits of Tower lore than it is as a lament of a lost childhood. “Hearts in Atlantis,” the title story, is an oddly evocative story about turbulent post-adolescence in a turbulent time in American history. The final three stories are less emotionally affective, but for that are still intriguing and strange in an illustrative way.
“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is a massive bummer of a story. I finished reading it the other morning, and spent the entire rest of the day all melancholy and introspective. That’s the sign of good writing, but it’s good to be forewarned about these kind of experiences. Like, don’t read this story if you’re going to a party or something later on because you’ll just be a drag. “Oh, hey! I haven’t seen you in ages, how are you?” “No, I guess you haven’t, because childhood ends and dreams die.” It would just be awkward for everyone. So you know, give yourself some time to process, because King puts some work in here.
I’m pretty sure everything I know about America in the sixties is because of Stephen King writing about his childhood. He’s just so stinking good at it. There’s always a warm sense of nostalgia, but as soon as you start to fall for it, he pulls some nasty Stephen King shit and it gets real. We’ll see his masterwork on the subject when I get around to reading IT again, but “Low Men in Yellow Coats” has a similar vibe. Yes, being a kid in postwar America seems awesome. Comics and TV and baseball and cheap monster movies on weekends, and all the rest of that Wonder Years goodness. Yet, as mentioned, King juxtaposes these warm fuzzies with the harsh reality of terrible mothers and ruthless bullies. His ability and willingness to depict the darkness which underlies reality is paramount to the story, and keeps it from cloying, destructive nostalgia.
The reason this story and “Hearts in Atlantis” are so affecting is because they’re about loss. “Low Men” is upsetting because King eases us in with the warm memories and promises of childhood. It’s the endless possibility of a summer vacation, but it’s not only that. Bobby Garfield is twelve, and the prospects of that age are infinite. By the end of the story, adult limitations have come crashing down on Bobby, and most of that optimistic promise of childhood is extinguished. The ease of childhood friendships are over, and the only solace Bobby has once Ted is gone and the rest of his friends are made strange by his adult experiences is that which is found in The Lord of the Flies. As we’ve seen, that book doesn’t have the most uplifting image of humanity.
The old cliché is that Vietnam is where the United States lost its innocence. Anyone with even the tiniest bit of a history education knows how fucking dumb that sentiment is. Sure, the country founded on the back of the slave trade is “innocent.” Okay. That said, the idea which spawned the cliché is based on how that conflict unfolded, and how upsetting it was across our society (let alone the society in actual Vietnam). World War II was a true apocalypse, and fighting in that war had a clear purpose in the minds of the participants. Vietnam, as an apocalyptic event for American society, is more along the lines of World War I. Horrible things are happening abroad which reverberate back and have a lasting effect on our civilian society, despite being half a world away from the actual violence.
The quagmire situation in Vietnam can be seen as a souring of purpose, the randomness of violence and conflict interrupting the peaceful certainty and hopeful optimism of post-World War II America. Bobby Garfield has his own Vietnam moment when Ted is recaptured by the low men and he experiences a moment of what he sees as cowardice. Bobby then spends the next few years being a delinquent, lashing out and being a little douche because he can’t properly deal with the horrible, affecting event that happened to him, effectively ending his childhood. This leads into “Hearts in Atlantis,” which is not about Bobby Garfield at all, but still documents the experience of a college kid in the sixties who ends up protesting the war. Lashing out, kicking against the established order which, as one ages, seems less monolithic and rational and more disorganized and, well, human.
“Hearts in Atlantis” is about college kids playing cards in a dorm. That’s pretty much it. Hearts is the game, and they play for money. They play for low stakes, but the game is addicting. If this were written about the dorm experience in the late 90’s, they’d be playing Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. I don’t know what kids do now, although so help me I’ve seen multiple teenagers in public spaces playing with a cup-and-ball, so college kids are probably playing jacks for nickels and weed. I don’t know, I’m old. Anyhow, the card game is actually dangerous, because the kids involved are addicted to the point of failing classes and flunking out. Flunking out of school in this age would mean that you’d be drafted, which of course was a dangerous proposition. Meanwhile, the students are beginning to understand what is happening in Vietnam, and solidifying their positions. College is a place where politics come to life, after all, and the sixties were really the first time this happened in such a performative manner. The story ends with a Lord of the Flies moment, and then we move into the final three stories of the collection.
Two of the three short stories are odd, surreal asides based on minor characters from “Low Men.” Turns out that Bobby’s best bro, Sully-John, ended up in Vietnam. He survived, but has some wicked P.T.S.D. His short story is that of his untimely death, but mostly involves some surreal weirdness that I don’t necessarily understand. The same could be said of the story centered on one Bobby’s childhood bullies, “Blind Willy.” That guy also spent time in Vietnam, but his wackadoo coping mechanism is to create elaborate alternate personalities. Like, he has two fake offices in Manhattan to obfuscate the fact that he earns his living panhandling. After the two novellas, which dug into themes of loss and change, these two stories, while well written, are just kind of strange.
Finally, the collection ends with “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” which is a pretty title for a nice little coda to the overall story told here. These stories are all about a second Lost Generation coming to terms with their failure. In the end, Bobby turned out to be a normal dude. Despite a transformative brush with the fantastic, he became a carpenter. His girlfriend, after a turbulent time as a protester and eco-warrior, had a brush with death and is now a teacher. Life goes on, and it’s usually mundane. And all the promise and optimism of childhood is invariably disappointed.
All Things Serve The Beam
Yo, if you haven’t finished The Dark Tower series, I don’t even know what you’re doing with your life. Go finish it! You might get hit by a van, like Stephen King. So go, get it did so you can say you did it. Seize the day, motherfucker!
Okay, so “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is a Dark Tower story, even if the fantastical elements aren’t really necessary to the story King was telling. Like, they made a movie about it (which I haven’t seen) and from what I understand excised all mention of the Tower. That said, Ted is an important character later on, and his role as a Breaker is paramount to what is happening in End World. Now, when Hearts in Atlantis was published, nobody had any real idea of what the endgame was going to look like. Sure, there were mentions of a ‘Crimson King’ in Wizard and Glass and Insomnia, but what did any of that mean? Well, after this we still don’t really know. After “Low Men,” we know that his minions are evil, and not exactly human. We also know that the Beams, which of course hold up the Tower and thus all realities, are under active attack from this Crimson King.
This was all well and good for the time. Like I said, when this came out I was desperate for any and all information about the Tower. However, now that all this time has passed and that story is complete, these interjections in King’s other fiction can seem a little gratuitous. That said, it’s fine. “Low Men” is an excellent story regardless, and the surreal, Tower-y elements actually adds a depth to the proceedings. It’s easier to accept the fantastic as a kid, even if in the end those elements functionally end your childhood.