"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking or Leaving 'The Stand'

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes I finish a book or movie and I am confident in my assessment of its being either good or bad. The perplexing situation is when I come to a novel prepped by other people's opinions and walk away feeling differently. Such was the case with Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand. The sum total of recommendations and reflections I've received from other King readers over the years led me to believe The Stand is rightly one of his most highly regarded novels. Yet, this story never came close to gripping me the way my favorite, It, did. Why didn't I go for this one?

The easy explanation would be the novel's length. But I like a good epic. The Stand cries out to be a long novel, though perhaps not as long as this uncut version is. Certainly the story's crisis, the near extinction of humankind, merits expansive prose. I suspect part of the novel's popularity comes from its explicit Judeo-Christian motifs. There are other examples of this. Think of the most popular Indiana Jones films. Think of the Dan Brown novel that made the biggest splash. Biblical fare. The Stand also has a nationalistic tone that many would find enticing. But I'm disenchanted with both the Bible and nationalism. So King didn't rope me in with either selling point.

The Stand isn't a bad novel. King plays masterfully with the duality of the plot. He mines Biblical notions of good versus evil, light versus dark, Heaven versus Hell. And over the course of the story he achieves a richness of characterization as various members of the ensemble cross from one side to the other. Some flirt with changing but then hunker down in their rut. Quite like life seen and lived under the influence of Sunday School mythos.

King explores a doctrine of two ways for all its worth. My favorite examples are the worldly Larry Underwood and the troubled orphan Harold Lauder. Both take winding routes up onto literal and figurative ridges between good and evil. Sometimes they climb with passion. Sometimes they tiptoe. Sometimes they backslide (and not just toward evil). It's a rich and plausible depiction of humans struggling to adapt, to connect, to be fulfilled. Internal and external forces push or tug (just like the various forces that decide if you end up enjoying a book).

At its best I found The Stand haunting in thoughtful ways. This was especially the case with a trio of characters who are chosen to travel through the Rocky Mountains and spy on behalf of the community we assume is the good side--put another way, the side worth saving. Their story evokes the poignancy that the best of other King works attain. King also proves crafty with his tried and true narrative devices, including the intentional spoiler. Just try and look away, he dares us.

I didn't worry too much for the first half of The Stand. Slow boil I thought. King will hook me any page now. 300 pages from the end I still wasn't gripped. 200 pages out, 100 pages, and I still lacked a special connection. I plowed through, appreciating tidbits, enjoying any given chapter but never feeling immersed.

I can respect those for whom The Stand is their favorite King novel. But like a certain contingent of the gathered protagonists, as the final pages arrived I found myself ready to leave. If a book is a town, this one just ain't mine. Oh it was good to visit--necessary 

even--but my heart is calling me somewhere else.

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