Revival by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There’s something to be said for Stephen King. Actually, there’s a lot to be said for him and the main thing is “the guy can write.” He has a way of creating characters you instantly know and his books (both good and bad) are eminently readable. You can whiz through a King novel, even the big ones, in no time. The pages seem to turn themselves. And for the most part, if you can stop about 20 pages before the end, you’ll think King is the greatest writer this generation has ever seen.
But if you don’t, and it’s hard to stop a moving train like a King novel, so if you don’t stop and barrel all the way through to the final page, well then I fear you’re going to be disappointed. In all his years of writing, with all the international best-sellers, Stephen King has yet to figure out how to craft an ending which isn’t the equivalent of showing the zippers or revealing the seams of the monster suit. He always feels the need to give you that one last shove, the extra push, and in doing so, he pushes too far and sends you over the edge.
Case in point is his latest work, Revival. The blurb tells us “It’s a masterpiece from King, in the great American tradition of Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.” The forget to mention Lovecraft, Mary Shelly and Arthur Machen, to name only a few. This is certainly an homage piece and for the first 93-95% it is up there with the best of ’em for building suspense and creating disturbing characters. The story itself follows the intertwined lives of Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs. The two first meet when Morton is an impressionable 6 year old and Jacobs is the mid-twenty something who comes to (small Maine, naturally) town as the reverend of their methodist congregation. When tragedy befalls the reverend, he leaves and Jamie grows up to be a heroin addicted middle of the road rhythm guitarist for a number of go nowhere bar bands (Hey, it’s a living). The two men meet up again and then again and again and finally, for a last time which becomes the culmination of everything the preacher has been working towards.
And this is part of the problem, We’re told the story in a first person, folksy narrative as ostensibly Jamie is writing down his memories of events. Yet, ultimately, It’s Jacobs’ story. Jamie’s own tale of rise and fall and rise again is only shown in relief as it plays out against his confrontations with Jacobs. We get huge time gaps with a bare bones, fill in the blank to catch up and then we’re off again on another “What is the Reverend up to this time” set piece. We only see Jamie grow as an extension of his relationship to his counter-part. Thing is, I’m good with that, while it’s happening. King is good enough that the story flows and you don’t notice these things. Sure, it moves a little slowly for a thriller, but that’s okay. I don’t mind the slow build. But by the time we get to the end, the obsessed Jacobs is doing everything he can to drive Jamie away and King gives us a Jamie who knows he shouldn’t continue and yet does. He created a character who was so set in his moral righteousness in one aspect he’s willing to risk almost everything to set things right, but then is wishy washy enough at the end to let that righteousness fade away. In the actual ending, the final reveal where the curtain is pulled back, we get… nothing new really. It’s a Lovecraftian landscape seen through the lens of a long game of telephone. And then, to make matters worse, everything Jamie did, every reason we were given for his continuing on his journey, is removed by his own actions, leaving him the only one not to have paid the price he’s unwittingly imposed on others.
I think, when things start to get towards a conclusion, King ultimately doesn’t trust himself. He’s got the skill to pull off some world class storytelling. He could (and does) create characters worthy of a Frank Norris or Nathaniel Hawthorne comparison, but then, just before letting that be enough, he flinches and reverts back to the old ways and removes himself from the field.
This book looks at nostalgia and aging, obsession and lost love, the mysteries of death and what lay beyond. As they say in hockey, you have to play a full 60 minutes. You can win if you don’t, but the outcome isn’t as easily assured, And up until just before the end of Revival, he does it with the energy and confidence of a championship team. Now let’s see him put together a whole 60 minutes.