Monday, April 9, 2007

Booklog: The Colorado Kid, Stephen King

The Colorado Kid
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime Paperback, 184 pages

Okay, Stephen King's just fucking with us now.

I can't say I've always been a big fan of King's. His myriad horror novels were all the rage when I was in junior high/high school, and there were and are plenty of otherwise really smart people who just go gaga over King's particular brand of horror. And, you know, more power to them -- far be it from me to dictate what other people should enjoy.

But I never really got off on it. And during his heyday, it was nearly impossible to not read Stephen King somewhere or other. So I never really respected his talent as much as maybe I should have -- the earthiness and popular nature of his prose and his stories just never worked for me.

But a funny thing happened as the years passed. Once the millions of books were already sold, and once King's horror fans got a little older or a little wiser, it turned out that King had plenty of other stuff to offer, and he started to garner some of the critical respect that maybe he always should have had.

Everyone probably already knows this by now, but there's a lot more going on in that old noggin of King's than just monsters and goblins. Case in point: The Colorado Kid.

Looking at the cover, this looks like a standard noirish mystery (like all the other books in the Hard Case Crime series) -- from the title, it seems more like a Western (I've got to say that the vague soundalike to the Kieselguhr Kid from Against the Day made this one pop in my mind towards the top of my to-read list), but it's really anything but. It's a tale told by two very old newpapermen to their young but whippersmart colleague about an unsolved mystery that they were involved with twenty-five years before. And, bear no mind, the case remains unsolved; at the end of the book we are no closer to a solution to the puzzle in the story than we were at the beginning.

So what the hell is King up to here? I think he's really telling us a story about stories; the theme of a "through line" in newspaper stories comes up several times, i.e. the "hook" needed to keep a reader interested. He's showing how incredibly unrealistic most "murder mysteries" really are, in that searching for the kinds of minute evidence that a show like CSI (name-checked in The Colorado Kid) makes its trade is often impractical, impossible, or unneeded for political reasons.

The mystery is this: some guy in his late thirties or early forties is found dead propped against a wastebasket in a small Maine town on April 24, 1980. With a small piece of partially chewed meat in his throat, apparently the cause of death. It takes nearly a year to even get an ID on the guy -- he was an artist from Colorado, hence the title. Was he alone when he diead? Was it murder or accident? How did he get from Colorado to Maine? All mysteries, none of them ever really solved.

And yet, this doesn't really feel like a cheat, for King gets the whole thing done with quickly (this won't even be an afternoon read for most people -- it's more of a novella than a novel) and has obviously researched a lot of details that feed into his fiction in a way that make the reader feel like there is a solution buried in there, but time has worn away so many facts that it's going to be impossible to suss out.

Overall an interesting book, one that I'm glad I read, and it's a mark of King's storytelling prowess that an essentially pointless story is so compelling. Mystery readers are apt to be a bit put off by this title, but if you're looking for an elegant piece of storytelling to while away most of an afternoon, look no further.

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