King Phones It In

Stephen King hears voices.

The Colorado Kid coverOf that I’m certain after reading “The Colorado Kid,” his novella-sized paperback that says in 40,000 words what Hemingway said in 59 words at the opening of “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”:

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”

“The Colorado Kid” is the story of mystery. It’s the story of a mystery with very few clues. Since there’s little enough story in this, you may want to avoid the rest of this paragraph as a spoiler. Two geezers who run a small newspaper on an island community in Maine tell their female intern the story of the Colorado Kid. They warn that they don’t have an answer to why a married graphic artist from Boulder would be found dead on the beach with a hunk of chewed sirloin caught in his throat.

They go on about the forensic intern who figured out where the Kid came from, what his last meal was before the Big Choke got him (fish and chips, 5 p.m.), and a few other odds and ends, quiz the intern several times where she thinks the story will go next, and that’s it. Lower curtain. Raise the lights.

Obviously, King has a reason for doing this, and he steps out on stage at the end to tell us. To him, Colorado Kid story is a metaphor for the mystery that surrounds all of us as “we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.”

“It’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition-derby world,” he concludes, and if you think this would fit well on a fortune cookie, you won’t find any objections in this corner.

Did it work? Not really. It was a fine-told story, and the garrelous newsmen play off each other like an old couple used to each others ways. Stephanie, the intern, is cute and has some moments when she’s wondering if island life is for her and will she ever go back to the Midwest. And I got the message about Life is a Mystery, but from the Rev. King’s sermon. The truth behind the death of the Kid is so impenatrable, so shallow, that it left us with nothing to chew on. We’re supposed to believe the two old newspapermen spent most of their lives worrying over this tag-end of a story? If King wanted us to feel the same way, there should have been more to the story for us to build our own theories.

“If you tell me I fell down on the job and didn’t tell all of this story there was to tell, I say you’re all wrong,” he concludes. But, Mr. King, I did have one question, one that haunted me ever since I heard about those two kids on their way to school found the CK dead on the beach that April morning. If he’d been alive after midnight, chewing on some pieces of steak, where the hell did he find a restaurant open that time of night in the off-season? And who snacks on chunks of meat like they were french fries?

Score: 72
Genre: 7 Average score, not for failing to provide a solution, but for not providing a solution so badly.
Realism: 15 King lets his characters build the world with their stories, their slang and their style.
Character: 11 The most important character is the one described the least. How are we supposed to care about the Kid if we know so little about him?
Setting: 15 Coastal Maine, lovingly described. Makes me want to hop on a plane.
Theme: 7 He set it up but he couldn’t knock it down.
Style: 14 King’s way with words is a sore point with some readers, but the “CK” is mostly dialog, and he’s got a good ear for that.
Bonus: 3 For those of us who’ve been with King since the early days (“The Shining” for me), a new King story is like a letter from an old lover who you still feel something for.
What does these numbers mean?