Saturday, February 17, 2018

Duma Key by Stephen King

I like Stephen King. I don’t know if I’ve told this story on this blog before, but when I was a college student, taking a class on 20th century fiction in pursuit of my English degree, the professor on the very first day of class passed around a set of index cards and asked everyone to write down their name, their major, their phone number, and the name of their favorite 20th century author. He then collected them and began reading off the list of authors, providing twenty or so seconds of commentary -- good or bad -- to the students who had identified the authors.

As I heard the selections of the other students -- Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger, Dreiser -- my level of angst and discomfort grew and grew, knowing how embarrassed I would be when the professor got to my card.

“Stephen King,” he eventually said, and then looked up at the class. “Who said Stephen King?”

Meekly, I raised my hand, drawing looks of scorn and contempt from much of the class.

The professor made no immediate reply. His eyes seemed to be searching for the words forming in his mind, and slowly, his head began to nod.

“King’s a good writer,” he said with authority, and then slowly moved onto the next card.

King is a good writer. But Duma Key is not one of his better works. It suffers from the same failing as many of King’s novels -- the distinct impression that every character in it is secretly Stephen King in a not-so-subtle disguise, with the same patterns of speech and the same reservoir of slightly-alt pop culture and literary references to draw on.

Duma Key’s first person narrator is Edgar Freemantle, the wealthy but more blue than white collar owner of a successful construction company who is seriously injured in an accident -- losing his right arm -- gets divorced in the painful fallout of his recovery, and decides to try and start something new -- the life of a painter -- renting a lonely house on the fictional island of Duma Key off Florida’s Gulf coast.

It’s a Stephen King novel, so spooky stuff starts happening. It’s good spooky stuff in the sense that it is at first unexplained, but when it finally comes time to explain it, it turns bad because the explanation doesn’t really hang together all that well. Yes, she’s evil and powerful, but why is she evil and powerful again? Because spooky?

But the bigger distraction is trying to make sense of Edgar Freemantle, the construction contractor from Minnesota who knows who George Babbitt is -- indeed, who at one point laments a culture that can't tell the difference between George Babbitt and John Bobbitt -- but doesn’t know who Vladimir Nabokov is.

It may be a nitpicking point, but, of course, it is Stephen King, not Edgar Freemantle, who knows who both George Babbitt and Vladimir Nabokov are. It's just that in one scene King remembered that Freemantle is supposed to be his own character and in another scene he didn’t.

At least, Freemantle is not a writer from Maine. Other than that, there's not much that separates him from King's other go-to protagonists.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment