The Gunslinger (1982)

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Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Penguin Books

© Copyright Penguin Books

© Copyright Penguin Books

My years spent as a library clerk, manning the counter, smiling to a public ravenous for the latest bestsellers, and restocking overstuffed shelves, gave me a certain insight into the reading habits of my corner of Montreal. For example, I knew that the fiction section was always less than you’d want it to be, short on award winners and long on beach books, and that Stephen King ruled several shelves, squeezing out less ambitious authors and even annexing some floor space, where doubles plugged the cracks.

This was the early nineties, when King’s books trended more toward length than quality. As an arrogant teen, I concluded that the author was better at short stories than novels, perhaps less influenced by close readings than by the types of patron messing up my pristine library shelves. Still, shorter gems like Salem’s Lot and later The Green Mile spoke to a different aesthetic than the overstuffed made-for-movie schlock the writer started to crank out at this point.

King’s first Dark Tower novel is actually just a series of interlocking short stories. Recognizing this going in and following my dusty prejudice against his longer books, I returned to The Gunslinger expecting something better, something truer and closer to what made King a prodigy of youthful energy, despite anything we may say about the quality or caliber of his writing. I’ll bypass the crude sex and hints at rape, elements I’d scraped from my memory, and move right along from there.

We’re introduced to Roland, the last of the gunslingers. He’s chasing the Man in Black across a great desert. We’re unsure under what circumstances, for what reason, or, for that matter, why Roland sees it fit to stop at intervals along the way despite the urgency of his mission. Is it a shortcoming of King’s writing? Did the author place these towns and people as markers because he finds it difficult to describe landscape and the slow movement of time? It’s been said that the hardest thing for a writer to do is to get a character to cross a room believably. Try getting him or her to cross a desert.

At any rate, this desert gleams hot and hard, its surface as blank as Roland’s motivations. In her excellent essay West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, cultural critic Jane Tompkins explains the appeal of cowboy movies, the same spaghetti westerns from which King claims to have drawn influence. Meant ironically, the subtitle of her lean, little book alludes to the fact that western protagonists don’t let anyone in. They live hard lives that skate along a harder surface. In others words, what you see is what you get because gunslingers don’t talk.

As such, Roland is portrayed in The Gunslinger as having an inscrutable surface, yet he also comes off as a regular Chatty Kathy, opening up to anyone he meets. Sure, he doesn’t trust folk worth a damn, but he still tells them his life story. How is it then that we find ourselves nowhere closer to understanding who he is or even why he is? One could argue this is part of the novel’s aesthetic, but really I think it speaks to a basic flaw in a lot of short stories. The idea is to show the moment, a picture frame if you will, and then let the reader imagine the shadowy heights of your dark towers. A good writer can do it. A lesser craftsman may come off coy.

Still, I like where the Dark Tower saga is heading. As he comes of age and becomes a gunslinger, Roland is given a lesson in the terrible power of a reputation: “Let the word go before you […] Given time, words may even enchant a nation.” I’d like to see this passage become the kernel from which the rest of the series grows, an omen of knowing nods to Arthurian legend and western tropes with a twist or two to teach us about the art of storytelling.

The hints are all there. Consider the strong doubt placed on words and language (“Only enemies speak the truth. Friends and lover lie endlessly”) or the Man in Black’s cruelest curse: utter a certain number in the presence of others, and they will go mad. The word is there, you see, and one cannot suppress the urge to say it forever. The thematic implication is clear: saying puts the world in motion, and words kill as surely as bullets. Does Roland know this?

More importantly, is our hero aware of his journey’s potential? I’m curious to see where this gunslinger is going, but, as the beginning of a series, I feel this first entry ultimately comes up short. Its interlocking tales feel more like exercises, drafts that should have been scrapped once the writer got a handle on the tone and scale of his enterprise. I’m about to start volume two, so prove me wrong, Stephen King.

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