For all of those who keep insisting that Stephen King is a literary equivalent of Big Mac and fries, writing in the comfortable confines of the frequently-despised 'genre' - please take a look atThe Body: The Fall from Innocence
, which is much more familiar to public in the quite faithful adaptation by Rob Reiner -'Stand by Me'.
It's not King's trademark horror; it is actually free of the constraints of any so-called 'genre'. It is a coming-of-age character-study novella set in 1960 Maine where monsters are not hiding behind bushes but instead live in the hearts of people
- the setting and themes at which King excels.
This is a story of four boys on the brink of adolescence; the last moments of childhood told with occasional almost Bradbury-esque nostalgia but with the rose-tinted glasses mercilessly torn off.
The blue-collar childhood in a small Maine town in 1960 is not a place of magic and wonder - these boys are no strangers to abandonment and abuse and prejudice.
Hot-tempered and volatile Teddy Duchamp
has been physically mutilated by his mentally ill father whom he still worships. Childish and not-too-bright Vern Tessio
lives in fear of his brother. Gordie Lachance
, whose adult writer self is telling us this story, is little but a stranger to his parents who never got over the death of his older brother. Smart and toughChris Chambers
, a kid from a family that supplies Castle Rock with alcoholics and juvenile delinquents, is being seriously abused by his father and is seen as a worthless and even dangerous person because of his family.
"Chris didn't talk much about his dad, but we all knew he hated him like poison. Chris was marked up every two weeks or so, bruises on his cheeks and neck or one eye swelled up and as colorful as a sunset, and once he came to school with a big clumsy bandage on the back of his head. Other times he never got to school at all. His mom would call him in sick because he was too lamed up to come in. Chris was smart, really smart, but he played truant a lot, and Mr. Halliburton, the town truant officer, was always showing up at Chris's house, driving his old black Chevrolet with the NO RIDERS sticker in the corner of the windshield. If Chris was being truant and Bertie (as we called him - always behind his back, of course) caught him, he would haul him back to school and see that Chris got detention for a week. But if Bertie found out that Chris was home because his father had beaten the shit out of him, Bertie just went away and didn't say boo to a cuckoo bird. It never occurred to me to question this set of priorities until about twenty years later."
But childhood, even though not at all sheltered, still gives them something of a shield against the world
- that sense of invulnerability that only the young children have, the love for adventure, and the protection of sincere and lighthearted friendship.
"Everything was there and around us. We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going. It was grand."
*****But we meet them right at the time when they are about to leave the protection of childhood behind them
, when in the miserably hot summer of 1960 they set out on a trip to find a body of a boy who disappeared in the woods - a trip that makes at least two of them go through quite significant emotional turmoil and reevaluate their priorities and see the strengthening of one friendship while the others fall apart as the realization sets in that there is more to friendship than just fun and leisure. This is a trip that uncovers both the steel and the vulnerability in the characters of Chris and Gordie, and shoves them from the haven of childhood into the world where things take work and sacrifice and pain, the world that is often cruel and cynical and unavoidable.
"But he said: "Your friends drag you down, Gordie. Don't you know that? [...] Your friends do. They're like drowning guys that are holding onto your legs. You can't save them. You can only drown with them."
This is a scary realization when you are young - that your friends are not good for you. I remember getting that feeling at around twelve, the age the boys in this book are, and I remember how unsettling that realization was. At that time it feels like friendships are forever, and that things that connect you to other people are there to stay - and realizing how easy and even necessary it can be to break those bonds is quite unsettling.
"You always know the truth, because when you cut yourself or someone else with it, there's always a bloody show."
And some of this is present here - but on the other hand we are also treated to the strengthening of the true friendship between Gordie and Chris. Gordie, a kid who is emotionally neglected by his family, acutely feels the sincerity and kindness that Chris brings into the world, despite his 'tough' origins
- Chris, the center of this ragtag group, is grown up beyond his years, and has some hard-earned wisdom for his twelve years of age, sprinkled with a bit of pain and bitterness but grounded in common sense.
"But it was only survival. We were clinging to each other in deep water. I've explained about Chris, I think; my reasons for clinging to him were less definable. His desire to get away from Castle Rock and out of the mill's shadow seemed to me to be my best part, and I could not just leave him to sink or swim on his own. If he had drowned, that part of me would have drowned with him, I think."
I love the narrative voice of this story - the narration by a young but accomplished writer Gordon Lachance, bringing the perspective that the few decades that have passed since that summer of 1960 have given him - but yet conveying the feelings and the attitudes of a twelve-year-old boy who feels both resentment and love and experiences profound beauty and the low of human ugliness. There are lyrical parts and trademark-King unflinching gory parts, and social commentary without the slightest sugar-coating. The story is peppered in places with the stories written by older Gordon and full of reflections of the adult man reflecting on the important and defining experience of the end of his childhood.
"The most important things are hardest to say, because words diminish them."
It is a fascinating, engrossing read, the one that is well worth several hours of your time, even if you have never been a fan of King. 5 stars and highly recommend!