This Week: The Gunslinger by Stephen King [audio read by George Guidall]
Grade: H for Huuuuuuuuh?
I have never read any Stephen King books before. There, now that's out of the way. Therefore, I really had absolutely no idea what to expect when I sat down to listen to this book. Based on the movie versions of many King books I've seen: Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Green Mile, The Shining, etc, I knew that King had sort of a dual personality; he can be both terrifying and also very lyrical and sad. The Gunslinger was something else entirely. It caught me completely off guard and made me actually think while I was listening, which was entirely unexpected. I consciously tried to avoid reviews or blurbs about this book before I started it, specifically because I wanted that element of surprise, and I'm very glad that I did. I am going to try my best to not reveal any major plot points in this review specifically for that reason, so I apologize now if this is too vague.
First thoughts when I start listening: Holy Cow! Ian McShane is reading this book! Oh... huh... its not Ian McShane. Weird... I wonder if Ian McShane is related to George Guidall. Is George Guidall a pseudonym for Ian McShane? No? Huh. Part of what made this book for me was the reading. The guy really really does sound like Ian McShane which made it work for me since I love Deadwood so much. When I went on the Freedom Trail tour in Boston our tour guide sounded EXACTLY like Paul Giamatti in John Adams so maybe these actors just purposefully put on voices that are approximations of other people. Who knows. Anyway, I definitely recommend listening to this book for a couple of reasons. First of all, the guy gets it just right with the voices, and second, its the kind of story that might be told over some whacked out post apocalyptic campfire, and just sounds better aloud. Anyway... on the review.
The Gunslinger is a post apocalyptic fantasy. I guess. The genre is really hard to pin down. Most of the book feels like a Western with a scifi bent, typical end of the world wanderings. Then there are elements of the story which are very traditional for high fantasy stories, specifically flashbacks to the gunslinger's childhood which takes place in a sort of pseudo-medieval castle where people use guns instead of swords. Last year I read Lamentation by Ken Scholes which is also sort of post apocalyptic, in that the bulk of the story takes place after this major city is destroyed and people are trying to pick up the pieces, etc. But that book made it very clear to the reader that you were reading about a fantasy-type place after a disaster. The Gunslinger on the other hand, throws in references to things in our own Earth's past mixed in with the fantasy stuff. Example: the "old tune" someone is playing on a piano is "Hey Jude." This was very disconcerting. Later on, the character of Jack is introduced, who is this boy who somehow ended up in this barren landscape. He can only vaguely remember his own past, but it seems almost identical to our own. This poses a lot of questions also. How did the world get from how it was in the gunslinger's childhood? How did the boy get there in the first place? Is there some kind of metaphor I'm missing? Are we in Hell/ Purgatory? I'm assuming that some of the answers come in the later volumes, but I can tell you that this book ends without any clear sense of what year it is, what sort of alternate reality these characters are living in, or what the heck everybody is doing.
But the thing I liked the most about this book was the uncertainty. Things genuinely surprised me because I had absolutely no idea where the story was going to go. A similar post apocalyptic story, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, can only go so far in terms of its storytelling. Roving bands of marauders who kill people? Sure why not. Cannibalism, desolate landscapes, fragments of lost civilization? Naturally. Zombies? Ok, not in The Road, but certainly World War Z has done the whole zombie-pocalypse thing. But The Gunslinger includes all the traditional end of days tropes in addition to some seriously strange, mind bending fantasy. That means that at one moment characters can be walking along in the traditional desolate nothingness and come across a talking crow for some reason. Or, they could encounter people who have been raised from the dead or possessed by demons. That stuff is kinda odd. The moment I'm convinced that the story just takes place after the classic Christian apocalypse (i.e. The Stand), there's another flashback to Roland's childhood and I think "what! ok, this is so not normal Earth we are talking about." Oh, the gunslinger's name is Roland, by the way. You don't actually find out until the second disc on the audio, and I'm not sure what page that would be equivalent to in the actual book. I liked that off the bat. The story starts out and he is just "the gunslinger" like Clint Eastwood in Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Anyway, bottom line, this book is really really good. I hear that the version I listened to is the revised one, but I can't tell you how it differs from the original. Apparently The Gunslinger is the shortest of all the books in the series, which I'm actually happy about. The sparse language worked to jump me right into the story, but I couldn't help but wish there were more descriptions of things, more background information, more plot. Plot actually was the weakest thing in this story. Roland chases this Man in Black across the entire country for reasons that never make themselves clear. He wants to find this Dark Tower apparently, but why does he need the Man in Black to find it? Reading/ listening to this book is definitely like watching the first season of Lost. You have some of the major pieces in play, but you haven't even met Desmond or The Others yet. Remember when the Tailies came? Why the heck are there polar bears?! Looking back as Lost starts its final season, you take a lot of knowledge for granted, even as questions remain unanswered. That John Locke used to be in a wheelchair was such a revelation. Seeing the smoke monster for the first time was really crazy, not to mention the first time the gang jumped through time. I have a feeling that reading the Dark Tower series is going to be a similar experience for me. I really hope so. Oddly enough, there are some of the same themes, both science fictional and religious in both The Gunslinger and Lost, in particular the Man in Black himself, who is much like Jacob's nemesis/Other-Locke. I wonder if in reading/ listening to this series and watching the final season of Lost at the same time will give me any additional insight. Or maybe I'll just have twice as many WTF moments.
On to The Drawing of The Three
Afterword: Started listening to Drawing of the Three on audio and its a different guy who doesn't sound very good at all. I have a few other books on my plate right now, but I'll get around to reading it in actual book form soon.