Back in 1975, Stephen King began ‘Salem’s Lot, his second novel, with an epigraph from George Seferis: “Old friend, what are you looking for?/ After those many years abroad you come/ With images you tended/ Under foreign skies/ Far away from your own land.” This summer, I settled down to read Joyland, something like the fiftieth novel Stephen King has published since he began his career forty years ago. I joke to no one in particular that Stephen King has an occult novel-writing machine, or a crack team of monkeys with keyboards, or a computer formula that writes his books for him, and Joyland does occasionally convey that quality of phoning it in; it just feels so easy for this guy. But it’s still a Stephen King book, which means it has a kicking story and a sentimental old heart. And since I seem destined, this summer, not to pick up a book or watch a movie or engage with any kind of artistic project without having some kind of maudlin experience or generally going through something, reading this nostalgic whodunit set in the lost world of the summer carnival launched me on my own nostalgic expedition. In Stephen King’s funhouse mirror, I saw all the other Stephen King books I have read since my childhood, under foreign skies, far away from my own land.
I am an only child and I grew up in a Foreign Service family, which means that my family picked up and moved every two to five years. Being a quasi-international child had a variety of effects, some transitory, some enduring. Foreign Service children, in my experience, inhabit a strange half-life of cosmopolitanism. Foreign words roll off their tongues, foreign foods succor them, and they are at home with thin toilet paper and thinner ketchup. But in the Foreign Service, your orientation is always in the direction of America, Washington D.C. or the Northern Virginia suburbs your magnetic pole. The very mission of the Foreign Service demands this, of course, and the logistics follow. Vacation is called “home leave”; in addition to all their assorted relatives, most people have some property back home, a building that they fret over and find tenants for and supply with new coats of paint on their short weeks stateside.
The orientation is spiritual as well as practical; overseas, I wore out VHS tapes my grandparents sent me, so that a select handful of episodes of 3-2-1 Contact, Reading Rainbow, and Sesame Street are seared into such a precious, way-back corner of my brain that should I dare to Google for a vignette of skating muppets singing “Feliz Navidad,” I would probably have a stroke.
When I was a little girl in Athens (the first of our postings during which I was a sentient being for any prolonged period), this orientation west to the white dome, combined with the distance therefrom and the relative scarcity of things — products mostly — that are unfailingly associated with America, meant that for me the United States became imbued with an unspeakable glamour. It goes without saying (but I will say) that I never lacked for amenities — the life I am describing was a gift from my parents and divine Providence. That said, amenities-wise, the United States was the navel of the universe.
I had some early object lessons in globalization, imperialism, and the profound power of marketing. When the first McDonald’s opened in Syntagma square, there were lines around the block, and I rejoiced at the limp pickles on my hamburger. When Wendy’s set up shop in a grand old peach-colored building nearby — formerly housing the American Office of Defense Cooperation, now housing a mall — it was a goddamned revelation (it’s not there anymore, evidently; the franchise pulled out of Greece in 2009). But there were still things I wanted. I remember hoarding dollar bills for the purpose of buying a book on home leave. To my knowledge it is still the case that it is hard and expensive to get all the books in English you want overseas.
My enthusiasm wasn’t only on the material plane. One set of grandparents lived in the north-easternmost part of California in a very small town that feels pretty much like the edge of the world. I found this place so enchanting that I informed my grandparents of my plan to honeymoon there on the eventual occasion of my marriage. Sometimes I think I chose to roost in San Francisco largely due to the memory of that exotic scented air, snuffled up as we exited the airport to visit my other grandparents, who lived near the Bay.
Back in Washington after eight years of overseas living, I went to public school and listened to 99.1 WHFS and DC 101 and surreptitiously watched Roseanne and generally got to the business of acclimating. By the time my parents moved back overseas and I started high school in the U.S., the mild foreignness I had tried to slough off began to seem like an asset, and I embarked on the period I now think of as Working It. This involved a deft combination of encouraging any perception of foreign grandeur associated with my person, protesting too much about my normalcy, and scoring laughs off the Otherness of my new home (I’m sorry, Armenia, for the things I said).
Even after I embraced the foreign, however, sometimes the glamour of America reflected back at me in curious ways. At a store in Yerevan I bought Pink Floyd CDs and a Led Zeppelin album called Live Over America that I haven’t seen since. The first cigarettes I ever bought, before I wanted to smoke a cigarette but respected their currency, came from an open-air market and had red and blue packages and names like “American Dream.” Back in Athens before college with the new Euro cheaper than the dollar, I hit the summer sales for garments from Kookai and the heavenly Zara, and one day scored some New Balance sneakers of an unorthodox style. (In boarding school, where an entire female bourse operates around the borrowing of clothes, it’s good to have some stuff that no one else has.) I took the bus to a gleaming new cineplex in an Athenian suburb to watch American movies that, as the years passed, drew temporally ever-closer to their American release dates, the celebrity name transliterations on the marquis ever more sophisticated.
There is, obviously, nothing intrinsically interesting about an American with a passport and two pairs of genuine or otherwise New Balance kicks manufactured for a non-U.S. market. The world is full of meandering paths and displaced nationalities and people with much more exciting stories than my own. But your childhood is your childhood; as I get older, and the tables of circumstance turn, as I lose whatever light patina of foreignness I had or manufactured and there’s a Zara in every American mall and a McDonald’s in every city in the world, as I bemoan the garbage food and the garbage construction and the garbage policies of my country and yearn now for a seaside taverna and the glamour of Abroad, there are some early things that stick with me. I never see a 7-Eleven Big Bite and don’t instinctively desire to eat it. I know that Heinz ketchup is unmistakable and precious and that a “cheeseburger” anywhere else is to an American cheeseburger what the grotesquerie of pressed dust we find in America is to a gyro. I don’t use and barely deserve the driver’s license I have, but I deeply admire a hot car. A new paperback purchased with crisp American dollars? That’s bliss. A Stephen King book? That’s Shangri-la.
I’ve done the math, and somehow throughout this modestly peripatetic life, in the hotel lobbies and the airports and the back seat of the car and during idle moments at my series of illuminating summer jobs — visa office photographer, gas station attendant, commissary stockist, slide scanner — I managed to read more books by Stephen King than by any other writer. I remember vividly the row of Stephen King books on the shelf of the basement library in the American Embassy Athens, a fortified Bauhaus dream downtown. Reading Joyland this summer, and then plowing through a handful of others for the second or third or fourth time, I was struck by how much of my conception of America comes from those thick books — what they said to me during that quasi-rootless time, and what they say to me now that both the vague internationalism and the natural solipsism of my childhood have mostly dissipated. For better or worse, I cut my patriotic teeth on the oeuvre of Stephen King.
I am hardly the first person to identify Stephen King as holding some claim to the title of America’s chief scribe. Nearly twenty years ago, Jonathan P. Davis wrote Stephen King’s America, an extended academic love poem to Stephen King as an author who “understood the human condition on all levels…who stood on the sacred ground of America…whose feelings about his country resonated throughout his fiction…” As with any attempt to distill the most somethingest traits of a given nation, the attributes typically end up being about things that are actually universal — among Davis’s areas of inquiry are “Technology,” “Childhood and Rites of Passage,” and “Survival in a Despairing World.” But I responded, as someone who has alternately fetishized and scorned my country of origin throughout my life, to Davis’s instinct to celebrate King as the great American writer of the late twentieth century.
The success of a novelist has to do with the extent to which his work allows the reader to lose herself in the story, but the novels that really resonate are the ones that also invite the reader to apply them to her particular circumstances. In my case, Stephen King books appealed to my lingering sense, even in high school, of America’s fundamental glamour, that feeling impelled both by the act of circumnavigating the globe broadly in the service of America’s aims, and the foreignness imparted by its distance. And they achieved several things besides scaring and entertaining the hell out of me. At some level, Stephen King novels issued a necessary corrective to my wanton teenage materialism and overweening belief in American goodness. They did their own kind of national myth-making.
In America and Americans, John Steinbeck’s dated, elegiac snapshot of American life in 1966, a book that in some ways encapsulates in non-fiction the portrait of America we find in Stephen King’s corpus, Steinbeck writes: “One of the characteristics most puzzling to a foreign observer is the strong and imperishable dream the American carries. On inspection, it is found that the dream has little to do with reality in American life. Consider the dream of and the hunger for home. The very word can reduce nearly all of my compatriots to tears.”
In The Stand, Larry Underwood looks around at the Maine coast, cleansed of people:
On either side of them the essence of honky-tonk beach resort had now enclosed them: gas stations, fried clam stands, Dairy Treets, motels painted in feverish pastel colors, mini-golf. Larry was drawn two painful ways by these things. Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups — never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their prosaic-arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.
In my adult grumpiness and the cold light of day, there are plenty of groups of Americans that I can take in without any pervading sense of their compelling romance, dirty or otherwise. But you can bet your ass I was receptive to this notion in my tender youth. Stephen King himself writes such a dirty, compelling romance that even now he breathes new life into that faded old vision of my homeland.
I would wager that most people who have heard of Stephen King know that he is from Maine; he grew up in Maine, he is a product of its schools, and little Maine towns, real or fictional, are where many of his worlds are built. (And Stephen King novels are all about world-building — although the publishers initially forced him to cut The Stand down to a reasonable size, the magisterial Complete and Uncut edition is one of his best books because it makes so much room for so many people, so many vignettes and backstories.) And even though Derry, à la It or Insomnia, or ‘Salem’s Lot from the novel of the same name, are characterized as being host to some enduring, elemental evil, this has an odd way of privileging place. These places are special.
Imagine knowing a place so well that you can write all of its inhabitants and landscape and make it feel so much like home, even home with something terrible lurking underneath. I think Stephen King books manage to appeal both to people who have experienced the tyranny and joy of the small town, as well as people who have known rootlessness in its many forms (not, of course, that the two are mutually exclusive). People in Stephen King novels are forever coming back to their hometowns after years away; no matter how long they are gone, they still know their physical and emotional topography.
The recurring characters and places, Mike Hanlon the librarian or the Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes store, or even the Crimson King, contribute to that feeling that the world is just one big American town with all the same points of reference, where people read Misery Chastain novels and remember, or willfully forget, the fire at the Black Spot. (Even apart from the fast food chains springing up like toadstools across the globe, the nature of the Foreign Service, with its far-flung points of insularity, recalls a similar feeling. This will sound like Working It, but I once walked past a man on the street in Yangon whose wedding I had attended in Yerevan a decade before.)
I love the Real Talk that comes out of the characters residing in these towns, things like “[he] looked and acted like the kind of man who would ride his help and bullyrag them around but lick up to his superiors like an egg-suck dog.” They remind me of things that my beloved grandpa said or was said to have said, how he might describe someone as looking like “forty miles of bad road.”
Stephen King’s novels transmit deeper things than hometown nostalgia. As Johathan P. Davis points out in his book, much of King’s work is concerned with the American devotion, in theory at any rate, to individual liberty. When King isn’t being gross, with his bone splinters and clots of blood and patented semantic move of creating an appalling noun just by adding the word “meat” to the back of another one — e.g., “boymeat” or “greymeat” — he spends a lot of time on the freedoms of the individual. Glenn Bateman, the retired sociology professor of The Stand, spends most of the novel talking about the formation of society and the tension between freedom and social cohesion. When, at the end of that novel, spunky Fran and Stu, a laconic badass from East Texas, make the choice to leave the crowding and rules of the Boulder Free Zone for the rugged, dangerous liberty of the Maine coast, this is posited as a sensible choice, one that only a couple of badasses would make.
In Insomnia, when the yuppie, city-living children of Lois Chasse try to pry her out of her hometown and install her in a retirement community with “a Red Diet Plan, a Blue Diet Plan, a Green Diet Plan, and a Yellow Diet Plan,” her beau Ralph “thought of eating three scientifically balanced meals a day for the rest of his life — no more sausage pizzas from Gambino’s, no more Coffee Pot sandwiches, no more chiliburgers from Mexico Mike’s — and found the prospect almost unbearably grim” (sometimes, freedom has a little bit to do with a Big Bite). Ralph prefers to die like his friend Jimmy V., without having to “show anyone either his driver’s license or his Blue Cross Major Medical card.” And then there are the abused women Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder, who declare their independence through a vale of blood.
Ostensibly, every person spends his or her days in the exercise of whatever freedoms are afforded them, but America is famously a place where this individual liberty is (ostensibly) enshrined in founding documents meant to govern a collective whole — it’s a nation of people living out their manifest destiny. Nobody understands, and in a sense reifies, this paradox like Stephen King. King disdains in his books the smug and unshakeable belief in personal rightness (he really has it in for yuppies), but he allows for a specialness that in many cases is literally divine — Dick Hallorann or Danny Torrance in The Shining, or Tom Cullen in The Stand, or any number of other characters endowed with exceptional ability, typically a clarity of vision, by some higher power. This is the kind of thing that really appeals to a child, especially an only child. I think it also resonates for good and ill with someone in a Foreign Service environment, which embodies a kind of exceptionalism, with its security doors and special badges and Fourth of July parties and commissaries filled with imported goods.
Stephen King believes in the individual; while his work battles what Steinbeck called “the screwball organizations which teach hatred and revenge to the ignorant and fearful people, using race or religion as the enemy,” he devotes a lot of pages to what Steinbeck likewise calls “the pleasant, benign, and interesting screwballs…poets in flowing robes, inventors of new religions…” without whom we would be “a duller nation.” King recognizes all of these screwballs as the real nobility of America. Often, they are teachers: in Insomnia, a character opines, “I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like Fucko the Clown. And I think most of them are teachers, living and working in small-town obscurity because that’s the way they like it.”
That’s American Dream talk, but I think a lot of Americans have a person like this somewhere up in their family tree. Isn’t King himself the best testament? For all the pompous literary types he tears down in his work (like the Creative Writing Honors Seminar instructor in It, who calls the writer Bill Denbrough’s horror stories “PULP” and “CRAP”), King sprinkles good teachers all over his work, along with other varieties of “benign screwballs” who, we suspect with folksy assurance, would do a sight better job of running the country than the people we pay to do the job.
The best patriots are always the most fiercely critical of their countries, and the critical difference between Stephen King and the big-gun schlock that he often shares space with in airport newsstands, is that Stephen King’s writing is a sustained exercise in pointing out the crappy and the horrifying things we all subscribe to by living out our American, and human, existence. Steinbeck wrote that in America, “Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.” Stephen King uses his stortytelling talents to counter this silence, to show us the worst things about the folks next door and, by extension, ourselves. King has hard words for the government, which does things like wipe out civilization with a series of evil fuckups, but many of his monsters and things that go bump in the night are actually the residents of ordinary little towns, which shelter wifebeaters and molesters and racists and complacent assholes. These characters aren’t always bad because they’re evil; sometimes they are weak and stupid, uncharitable, feeling sorry for themselves over a slight from a woman or a group. Sometimes they’re just the beneficiaries of a hard row without the gumption and can-do to hoe it.
When a man is locked up briefly for assaulting his wife in Insomnia, a citizen asks “‘How can assault be a misdemeanor?…I’m sorry, but I never did understand that part.’ ‘It’s a misdemeanor when you only do it to your wife,’ McGovern said, hoisting his satiric eyebrow. ‘It’s the American way, Lo.’” Stephen King talks about other things that comprise the American way. The evil presence living under Derry enriches itself on the pre-existing condition, so to speak, of its citizens. When the fire at the Black Spot–a nightclub built by the black soldiers on the nearby military base–burns scores of people alive, it was the sheet-clad town fathers, not the alien spider, who set the blaze.
On race (and gender), Stephen King has taken and acknowledged some very valid criticism. In his rush to write the whole America, he is basically one hundred percent responsible for the modern incarnation of the Magical Negro, for example in the character of The Stand’s Mother Abagail, a rustic lady Moses who communes with the Lord and walks uphill and back both ways to fix a good supper for her guests. King himself, in a Playboy interview quoted in Davis’s book, called Mother Abagail and The Shining’s Dick Hallorann “cardboard caricatures of superblack heroes, viewed through rose-tinted glasses of white liberal guilt…” This is actually another part of my strange inheritance from Stephen King’s work. Sometimes the hardest lesson about racism is that it’s not always the guy in the sheet. Some discussions about race (beyond the easy ones like laughing at pictures of latter-day Klan members) and some articles about the number of black characters in Girls make me anxious and clammy.
In spite of these faults, there are worse primers on American life than a Stephen King novel, worse pieces of propaganda to absorb. Steinbeck said of the so-called American way of life, “No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless…These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.” I don’t feel that way all of the time, but during a summer spent getting reacquainted with Stephen King, between the nostalgia and blood clots and things that go bump in the night, for a moment or two I entertained the possibility.
Image via MShades/Flickr