From a Buick 8
by Stephen King
Scribner, 2002, 356 pgs
Review score: **1/2 out of *****

William Gibson wrote Neuromancer early in his writing career. Gibson has been asked on several occasions why he never produced another book like Neuromancer. Gibson said that the person who wrote Neuromancer has moved on. That world view and that crazy intensity, is no longer there. I got the feeling that Gibson felt that if he had not grown beyond this, he might not be here now.

William Gibson's comment came to mind after I finished reading Stephen King's From a Buick 8. The intensity and pacing of the early novels like The Shining, 'Salem's Lot and The Stand have been missing from King's work for many years.

What ever the source of King's early intensity, it is difficult to forget. Perhaps all King readers are still in search of that early rush. I remember reading 'Salem's Lot and having the book grab me. Those early King books were books that you read fast, in a day or two at most. The kind of books that I tried to stay away from in college because their addictive "just another chapter" quality distracted me from other topics like organic chemistry. The page turning intensity of King's early work has been replaced by more thoughtful meditations. In the last few years these meditations have been readable, if not burning page turners. This can be contrasted with King's earlier attempts at meditative novels like Cujo and Gerrold's Game where almost all of the action was internal and the pacing painfully slow.

Near the end of From a Buick 8 the central narrator of the story, Sandy Dearborn, states that the account he is relating is not like a movie or a play. There are not three acts: a beginning, a middle and an end. There are just the chains of events in life and the final end that comes to all of us. Real stories are not neatly tied up in a conclusion.

At the title suggests, the book's central background character is a "Buick 8", a classic Buick 8-cylinder roadster. Or at least it looks like a Buick roadster, possibly modified by H.R. Giger. As the story proceeds we learn some of the Buick 8's story. The ultimate origin of the Buick 8 is no more knowable than the ultimate origin of any of us. While it is present, its effects are observed, but the root causes are never known. Perhaps King's point is that root causes are never know in an empirical sense. Even those who believe that religion provides root answers will also say something like "God moves in mysterious ways".

Most of the story in From a Buick 8 concerns the Pennsylvania State Police troop that become the owners of the Buick 8. Their life stories intertwine with that of the strange object that looks like a Buick. This works well for about the first half of the book. But then it starts to drag. The stories become a bit repetitive and the mundane nature of life becomes an overriding theme. Even dramatic events like a chlorine spill near a school are simply the stuff of the world that we are used to. Although there is some tenuous suggestion that the malign influence of the Buick 8 might be involved, we know that chemical spills have happened in the real world and will happen in the future.

Being Stephen King means never being edited. Pretty much what ever he writes sells. Stephen King is not just a writer, but a small industry. No editor would ever be allowed to stand in the path of the Stephen King money machine. Although From a Buick 8 is readable, the story sort of lumbers around. What ever profound issues King raises are diffused in over 300 pages of narrative. The story should have been a novella, not a novel. Novellas don't sell unless they are combined with other stories and novellas, so we get a rather flaccid work, instead of the lean, tight writing that made King's early career. Although there are few novels with ideas that are compulsive page turners (perhaps because we have to do the work of thinking), as Iain Pears demonstrates in his book The Dream of Scipio, novels with ideas can be tightly paced and compelling.

Ian Kaplan
December 2002
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