Saturday, February 26, 2011

Life on the Lam - #15

STORY: "The Death of Jack Hamilton" by Stephen King


BASICALLY: John Dillinger, the 1930s gangster, runs out of luck when a member of his gang is shot through the lung and dies slowly, over a number of days, while the group continues to flee and hide out from the police.

First, the obvious: Stephen King does quite a lot of things right. "The Death of Jack Hamilton" is a great story that flies by at King's usual pace with escapes, shootouts, and car chases. Even after Jack Hamilton's been shot, his constant pain and deteriorating condition are evoked, but not dwelled on—the character of John Dillinger injects action and hopes and optimism (despite the story's title, even) into the whole thing. Meanwhile, the narrator, speaking from the perspective of history, assures us that Johnnie Dillinger's luck is up. This creates a tension between the story's action-heavy forward momentum and the sense of impending doom, or destiny, that's very appealing.

But King does some other things well, too. Maybe less obvious things, like managing a huge cast of characters. The story's told through the eyes of Homer Van Meter, a member of Dillinger's gang, and we're thrown the names of all kinds of associates and enemies and victims—Dock Barker, Melvin Purvis, Harry Pierpont, Mrs. Deelie Francis, and on and on—but never in some huge eye-glazing dump of exposition. The names are always attached to memorable characteristics. (Dock Barker's big penis, anyone? Harry Pierpont's original gang? Dr. Moran the crybaby?) King introduces the kind of notable details that make it easy for his reader keep all the people straight, and it works so nicely and subtly because Van Meter's voice, as narrator, is conversational and casual. Little by little, it reveals exactly what's necessary, just like a guy telling a good story.

King also nails the vocabulary and rhythms that bring the 1930s to life. Kind of. I think. I'm not convinced that the voice is completely authentic; it actually seems so seamless and perfect that I have the feeling it must be culled more from movies and the mythos surrounding Depression-era gangsters than from history. But it sounds extremely plausible, and most importantly, it's consistent. 

Johnnie broke out the back window of the Ford with the butt of his pistol and started shooting back. I mashed the gas pedal again and got that Ford all the way up to fifty, which was a tearing rush in those days. There wasn't much traffic, but what there was I passed any way I could—on the left, on the right, in the ditch. Twice I felt the driver's-side wheels go up, but we never tipped. Nothing like a Ford when it came to a getaway. Once Johnnie wrote to Henry Ford himself. "When I'm in a Ford, I can make any car take my dust," he told Mr. Ford, and we surely dusted them that day. 
And, of course, there's the requisite smattering of dames and krauts and slugs throughout, but King never lays it on too thickly. He treads that line between conjuring an era and parodying an era with apparent ease.

I'm a little curious about King's choice to depart from the historical record with his narrator. Homer Van Meter died a month after Dillinger in1934, but King has him muse at the beginning of this story about a book that "claims that my old pal died on November 20, 1963—two days before Kennedy—at the ripe old age of sixty, and it wasn't no federal bullet that took him off but a plain old heart attack." I suppose the advantage is that King can frame the story as being the reminiscence of an old associate who knows the true story of Dillinger, lending it a sort of credibility. And as far as a good yarn goes, it really doesn't matter what happened to Van Meter. King could have made up a different associate to tell the story, except that he mentions in a note afterwards that he was drawn to Van Meter precisely for one of the story's most incredible details (that just happens to be supposedly true)—that Van Meter learned how to rope flies with little lassos of thread when he was in Pendleton Reformatory as a youth. A truly weird detail is much better if it's attached to something real, I guess, whereas fictionalizing something so mundane as a date of death pretty much slips by unnoticed.

Sometimes, I've heard fans of Stephen King try to claim that he's overlooked by critics, that he's as good as any of the "classic" writers we study in school. But I don't see it. "The Death of Jack Hamilton" is a fun story, and very well told. But that's all it is. The surface story is the whole story—though this is not a value judgment. I repeat: people who read great literature are not somehow better than people who read entertaining literature. King is not trying to do what, say, Cynthia Ozick or Franz Kafka are trying to do—tell a multiplicity of stories at once, or involve the reader in untying a knot at the center of the story. I'm interested in learning from King what King does well: make the reader see and feel the unfolding of his vivid plots, make the prose fly by, and keep everything straight even as it becomes complicated.

For me, there's only one thing that feels like a clunky mistake in "The Death of Jack Hamilton": the ending. Van Meter sort of sums everything up and reflects that "God makes it all come right in the end, that's what Johnnie told Dock Barker just before we parted company" and "we're stuck with what we have, but that's all right; in God's eyes, none of us are really much more than flies on strings and all that matters is how much sunshine you can spread along the way." Guhhhh. The sudden injection of a moral just about ruins the whole thing for me, though I can see that this technique is probably enormously appealing to a good portion of King's vast readership. One of the cherished conventions of literary fiction is that the story not get wrapped up in some tidy package, that the author not ever directly tell you what the story's supposed to be "about." Of course, that's probably why a lot of people hate literary fiction and why it will always possess a certain elitist stink. But I think an ending like this one ends up limiting the story; it doesn't leave anything whatsoever for the reader to do. No point, even, in reflection, because the reflection has been done for us. I like my reading, even when it's just for pleasure, not to be entirely passive. So I'll skip the tidy endings, but I'm still thrilled by the overall delivery.


Melissa said...

Is that why part of why you didn't like the Great Gatsby? ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.")

Lisa Barrow said...

I can't believe you remember that. The seventeen-year-old girl who hated THE GREAT GATSBY was criminally insane. That book is great. I have seen the error of my ways and made amends! I should do a Fitzgerald story on here one of these days...

Melissa said...

What if he had written: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, so all that matters is how much sunshine we can spread along the way"?

That would have ruined it, right?

Lisa Barrow said...

Ugh. Keep this up and you'll make my nervous tic come back.

The MAIN problem with King's ending is that it doesn't make sense for his character. Not only does it tie everything up in a neat little bow, but it comes out of the mouth of someone who simply doesn't think that way.

Could it be meant ironically, since these guys were driving around shooting at and carjacking people all over the place? Maybe... though it didn't feel that way. And you know me, I do love a good dollop of irony.

And now I'm unhappy because I can't find my copy of THE GREAT GATSBY anywhere.

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