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Stephen King's entry in the Hard Case Crime series is a story with little "on-screen" action, though a quick, pleasant read, as far as it goes. Stephanie McCann, a bright young intern at a local newspaper on an island off the coast of Maine, is told the story of a local mystery by her mentors, two genial old coots, long-time New England newspapermen, one 65, one 90. Years before, a man dubbed the "Colorado Kid" had arrived on the island from far off only to die, suddenly and mysteriously, soon after his arrival, with no one sure why he had come or how he died.

The book is not much in keeping with the Hard Case line. It's a mystery, or includes one, but is neither hardboiled nor noir. The story is neither scary nor dark nor violent, though there are a couple of creepy moments when the body is found—it seems King can't restrain the habit. The book mostly consists of one long conversation among likable characters, which is engaging enough, and which has its own plot line: Stephanie is being tested to see if she belongs in that job and in that place. The sorting out of whether and where she will fit in this world is the happy parallel to the sad story of the Kid. Both come to the island from far away, to meet very different fates.

To a great extent, certainly on its surface, this is a novel of local color. King is proud of displaying his store of local knowledge, such as the expression "ridding up" for washing up after dinner. He's not so much showing off—this is not deep or rare knowledge—as attesting to his belonging, his authenticity, his right to speak of this place and these people. In this, The Colorado Kid is similar to his manner in Dolores Claiborne (1992).

In this respect, the book has more to do with Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) than with either typical noir fiction or the books for which King is best known. But though Jewett's stories of the coast of Maine occur in rustic or tea-cozy settings, they launch from those into studies of character and further, into metaphysical questions; King does—or wants to do—the same, as he tells us in an afterword. But in doing so—in forcing his story into the mold of his idea, his theme—he cripples it.

Without any desire to spoil the plot, such as it is, a reviewer must note that King takes the story of the Colorado Kid only so far, then stops, leaving the rest unknown. The urge that drives the reader through this brief book (hardly more than a long novella)—the desire to find out how the story turns out—runs into a brick wall. King acknowledges in the afterword that some readers may hate this book, but that he is writing about mystery rather than writing a mystery; or rather, he writes a mystery not to resolve it but to put the reader into the sense of Mystery—the mystery of life we are all in. The point of the book is that there is much we can never know, much that is never explained to us—such as what happened to the Kid. "I ask you to consider the fact that we live in a web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality" (p. 183; emphases King's).

Given what King wanted to achieve, was it necessary to write this sort of story, one that ends without a resolution or even complete information? Does it work?

To answer the first question: probably not. It seems King has been misled into something that critics half a century ago and more labeled the Imitative Fallacy, the mistake (as some would have it) authors make of thinking that their plot or writing should imitate the mood or events or ideas within their story. If memory serves, one New Critic used to use as an example of the Imitative Fallacy the film version of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946), which had a plot so famously murky it reportedly confounded even Chandler. Just because it's a mystery, it didn't need to be—in fact, should not have been—mysterious and murky in its portrayal of events and in its plotting. Of course, in the case of The Big Sleep, the result was probably not intentional; the novel was a fix-up of several previously unrelated short stories, and the famously sharp screenplay, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, brought it all yet another remove from the original tales. Presumably, King would not agree that this kind of imitation is artistically "fallacious," as he seems to think it was the way to get across what he wanted to get across. (It could be argued that such imitation is not necessarily a "fallacy," but an artistic use of mimetic powers, and even that the term "fallacy" should not be applied to literature, as if it were a form of logic; but this is beyond our scope here.)

But that the sense of mystery King is getting at did not have to be presented in this way, which he acknowledges as potentially irritating, seems clear enough. Many writers take on the subject of life's deeply unsettling mysteriousness, uncertainty, unknowability. Some examples, more or less off the cuff, might include René Daumal's great and sadly unfinished Mount Analogue (1952); a lot of Philip K. Dick, but especially the VALIS books (1981-82); Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966); the Strugatsky brothers' Definitely Maybe (1978); and perhaps even George Herriman's Krazy Kat, in which something as basic as the sex of the protagonist is not only uncertain, but positively fluid (to say nothing of the backgrounds). Or take, for a contemporary instance, almost any short story by Jeffrey Ford, in which the tale typically turns in on itself like a Möbius strip, then inside out, after which the narrative self-destructs like the tape at the start of Mission Impossible. It's practically Ford's shtick.

But all of these, more or less, have a plot through-line, even Krazy Kat: mouse hits cat with brick and is arrested by cop. (And an explanation is even given for the brick tossing—a romantic intrigue in an ancient Egyptian lifetime.) One can even imagine a story in which the mystery is solved, but that still leaves the Mystery apparent; Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key (1931) tends in that direction, as does the well-known Flitcraft episode of The Maltese Falcon (1930).

But perhaps the best and most telling comparison is of The Colorado Kid with Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), a film which doesn't leave us feeling cheated of a story, yet pulls the rug out from under us, leaving us sick and dizzy at the revelation of the paltry makeshifts we rely on to give ourselves a sense of continuity and "certainty." The Colorado Kid merely talks about the disturbing, frightening experience that Memento drops us into. It's the difference between listening to a Dr. Ruth radio show about sex and having sex. Sex that leaves you weak.

To leave us with a sense of Not Knowing, King gives us a tale chopped off arbitrarily and artlessly. Yes, we don't know what happened, but then there's lots of things we might not know—the population of Mongolia; the names of our great-grandparents; who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder—without being particularly bothered, or plunged into a sense of Mystery. The not-knowing in The Colorado Kid is more like the loss of a sock in the laundry than like the loss of familiarity or certainty that throws us into a sense of existential or even ontological panic. Rather than invoking a profoundly disquieting sense of Mystery, King invokes this simpler sense of ignorance, which can be frustrating but is essentially trivial; the whole exercise of this book seems artificial and trivial as a result. Probably only someone of King's stature could have gotten away with publishing it.

Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published 15 short stories, with more forthcoming, and approximately 150 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business. His dark fantasy "Greaves, This Is Serious" can be found in The Year's Best Fantasy 3, edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer; his dark fantasy "East and West of Nowhere" can be found in Dark Notes from New Jersey, an anthology of horror/SF/fantasy stories by New Jersey authors inspired by songs of New Jersey musicians, edited by Harrison Howe.



Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.
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