The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

palahniukc-fightclubThe protagonist of this story, who remains unnamed throughout, is a white-collar worker who is totally dissatisfied with his life – not just his job, but his whole way of life, which is also our way of life. Having your own appartment, owning lots of meaningless stuff, being a worker drone in a soulless system. This is apparently “success.” Something is seriously wrong, and he feels it. He is desperately unhappy. As a way of making life more tolerable, he attends various group therapy meetings: testicular cancer, alcoholism, etc. Even though he has nothing wrong with him, these meetings centre him emotionally somehow.

Then our hero comes across a man called Tyler Durden, and his life is changed forever. In a parking lot, Tyler bizarrely asks him to hit him, then Tyler hits him back. This moment flowers into a painful initiation. Together they form Fight Club, a secret gathering where men come to fight each other in pairs. And it’s not even about fighting to win. It’s about release – unleashing all of the repressed garbage that “normal” life forces on you, and finally feeling alive again. Everybody benefits, winners and loser. And Fight Club’s popularity begins to soar, with clubs sprouting up in towns and cities all over America.

The problem starts when Fight Club evolves into something else: something Tyler calls Project Mayhem. The agenda becomes, not so much personal catharsis, but planning to destroy the system that stole your soul in the first place.

This novel definitely touches something deep in the psyche. I could never imagine something like Fight Club taking off in real life, but I know the feeling of being a worker drone, of experiencing life as drained of all vitality, of feeling that I’m bound and shackled in an allegedly normal existence that is actually sick. I’ve known what it’s like to repress myself, and to unleash myself. But there are safer ways than Fight Club; I couldn’t ever imagine myself going for that.

As for Project Mayhem, I think the reader is expected to ask himself whether he wishes to see civilisation as we know it destroyed and reborn. My own viewpoint is that there is actually nothing wrong with life as it is – even if it is screwed up. It’s the responsibilty of every individual to struggle against an essentially predatory world – just like it is in the animal kingdom. We have no basic human right of utopia, and no right to expect it. Adapt and survive.

The tragedy in the story is that a bunch of men who step outside of the system end up becoming what the protagonist calls “space-monkeys” – blind followers of a messianic leader, Tyler Durden.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the excellent movie based on this novel. I last watched it about a year ago, and from what I can remember it’s a very faithful adaptation, so much so that reading the book almost felt like watching the movie. The book’s ending, however, differs somewhat, and is, in my opinion, superior.

It’s great to read a book that is sharp and gritty, but with a philosophical thread woven through its pages. It also contains some highly quotable lines:

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”

“The things you used to own, now they own you.”

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Highly recommended.

Rage by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

Stephen King started writing Rage when he was only nineteen years old, long before he wrote his first published novel Carrie. It was originally titled Getting It On. In fact, King attempted to get this novel published prior to Carrie, but it was rejected. It would later see the light in 1977 under the pen-name Richard Bachman. King would later release several more novels under this pseudonym. When the secret finally got out, interest in these books skyrocketed, and the publishers decided to release an omnibus edition of four of them, entitled The Bachman Books, under King’s own name.

I used to be an avid fan of Stephen King in my teens and twenties, but somewhere along the line I got tired of all the huge tomes of 700 plus pages. There’s nothing worse than plodding through a massive book only to discover that it ends up as nothing more than an average story, as is often the case. But Rage is of special interest to me, because it’s the one book that Stephen King ended up withdrawing from publication. Notoriety like that inststantly piques my curiosity.

The subject matter of this 150-page novella concerns a high school boy, Charles Decker, who shoots two teachers in his school then holds his classmates hostage. School shootings, as we know, occasionally happen in real life, Columbine being the most famous example. Unfortunately, after one such real-life incident, the perpetrator was found to have a copy of Rage in his locker. King, and his publishers, agreed that it was best to remove the book from sale indefinitely.

The novel is written in the first person and Decker is the protagonist. At no point is the reader asked to rationalise Decker’s actions, only to take a peek inside his head at the mitigating circumstances that might lead a person to do what Decker did. One prominent theme of the novel is the abuse that adults to do children – specifically parents and teachers. This abuse is sometimes unconscious and even well-intentioned in a warped sort of way. Decker tells of an occasion when he was younger and his mother forced him to attend a birthday party dressed up in his Sunday best, when he knew that all the other kids would be in casual clothes and he would look foolish. But no amount of protesting would change her mind. He also recounts the story of going camping with his dad and his dad’s drinking buddies, where he overheard his father talking about how he would slit his mother’s nose open if he ever caught her in adultery.

The story is set in a time period when the education system allowed teachers to get away with way too much. I went to school at a time when the system was starting to emerge out of this, to put teachers on a shorter leash. I could tell you some stories. I recall my junior high mathematics teacher walking up behind me and whacking me across the back of the head hard. I was stunned; didn’t see it coming. All I had done to deserve this was skip a line of my sums because I had been smart enough to work it out in my head. I recall botching a question on my biology examination. Afterwards, in class, the teacher was going over the paper, and he decided to bring the whole class to fits of laughter as he described how “some moron” had answered question 5. Then there was my high school PE teacher, the man who made me hate PE. Do the slightest thing wrong and you were ordered to do ten push-ups in front of everyone. He took perverse pleasure if you were overweight like me and couldn’t do the exercise properly. I get a little angry even now, thinking back. I didn’t know it then, but these were adults who brought their anger issues and perverse character traits into work with them and took them out on the children in their care.

So I instantly empathised with Charlie Decker’s stories. Rage is about what happens when the abuse gets to the point where the abused person says, “Enough.” But this is not a tale about a boy losing himself in violence; it’s a strangely controlled explosion. Once Decker has his classmates in isolation, he begins something that he calls “getting it on” – a thing that appears to mean getting to the heart of the matter, stripping away the bullshit and being properly honest with each other.

He begins by recounting tales from his childhood, and soon his classmates are joining in, supplying stories of their own. A strange rapport ensues between captor and captives. Meanwhile the police are gathering outside, wondering about what Decker’s demands will be. But the class have come to realise that Decker has no intention of harming them. Most of them sense that something important is happening; they are all undergoing a transition, where pent up emotions can finally be released and healed.

This was not an easy book to read, because it was filled with so much pain. But identification with that pain made it impossible to leave the story unfinished. The plot suffers a little bit from melodrama in a couple of places, but for something written by one so young, it is surprisingly honest about life. The danger, I suppose, is in identifying so much with Charlie Decker that the reader justifies his actions and turns them into something heroic. But in the story, even Charlie admits that he’s losing his mind.

A sober and insightful story about human nature. There is more worth in these 150 pages than in many a novel four times the size. Well worth hunting for a second-hand copy.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I started tuning into the TV series Dexter when it was partway through the first season, and I immediately liked it – so much so that I sought out the novel on which it is based. The premise is this: Dexter Morgan works for the police as a blood-spatter analyst. Under the surface, he is a sociopath, who has learned to hide it well. In fact, he has killed many times, but only according to a strict code handed down to him by his now-dead stepfather Harry. Harry, being an experienced cop, knew what Dexter was from a very early age. And so he did everything in his power to keep his step-son from ending up in the electric chair one day. He taught him to control his murderous urges, to kill only under strict circumstances, and only those who deserved to die. And so, adult Dexter works for the police, covertly solving unsolved crimes in his own special way. And the body count rises.

It’s bizarre, right? And that’s part of the attraction. No one’s written a book quite like this. It’s a similar attraction with the likes of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which puts an even worse bad guy in the driving seat of the story. But is Dexter a bad guy? Sort of. In one sense he’s a vigilante hero, but he’s still a guy with a serious dark side who comes way too close to murdering the innocent for comfort. He also treats people close to him badly, seeing his girlfriend as a wardrobe accessory that helps him blend into the human race. For me, the attraction of the novel is in how Dexter deals with being an outsider. It’s something every geek can relate to. He’s different – unnacceptable. He must do a degree of acting to live, and he hates having to do it. Inside he has a longing to be like others, but senses that he never will be. On some level it’s possible to push aside the fact that he’s a murderer and simply relate to his experience. Dexter is also a story about the consequences of shame and guilt. Even though he feels neither, he is still burdened with the need to keep secrets from the world. Anyone can relate to this. I mean, we all have things we don’t want others to know, right?

Dexter is, however, a bit of a walking contradiction. He insists that he is incapable of feeling anything, and yet over the course of the story we see him going through all sorts of emotions – just not in a typically well-adjusted human fashion. The overall story concerns another serial killer on the rampage, one who has eluded the police – and one who leaves special secret messages that are just for Dexter. Somehow the mysterious killer knows more than anyone should about Dexter’s true nature. It’s worth noting that while the book and season 1 of the series tell the same story, the series expands on it a great deal and packs some surprises into the final episodes that those who have read the book will enjoy. The two do not end the same way.

Ultimately, the explanation for why Dexter is the way he is turns out to be farcical: a single traumatic event in his life made him a psychopath. I don’t buy it. In fact, the whole idea of romanticising a sociopath can ultimately be no more than a fascinating fairytale – and possibly a dangerous one. Hey, I can kill people and still be cool!

In the epilogue, the story seems to lose direction entirely, with Dexter promising to kill someone on far shakier grounds than the Code of Harry would allow. It’s rare that I prefer an adaptation to an original, but this time the TV series gets my vote. The TV Dexter character wasn’t as dislikable, or contradictory, as the Dexter in the book. I doubt I’ll be back for the written sequel, Dearly Devoted Dexter, but I’m eager to watch season 2 (which is not an adaptation of the second novel). My continuing interest might sound hypocritical, but I’m too fascinated by the character to write him off just yet.

This was an enjoyable, original page-turner for most of its length, losing its way towards the end. There are currently four Dexter books in print.

Dosh by Robert Swindells

I’ve read several young adult novels by Robert Swindells and have never been disappointed, for one reason: he is uncompromising. The trials and tribulations of reality are never sugar-coated and no subject is taboo. This is never more true than in Dosh, where the topic of child pornography is under the spotlight.

The book introduces an ensemble cast of characters from the neighbourhood of Cottoncroft, many of whom are working kids – those with paper-rounds and such. It’s standard procedure in the neighbourhood that working kids pay a portion of their salaries to a local gang of older teens called “The Push.” The Push in turn pays Charles “Froggy” Flitcroft, the local Al Capone wannabe, from whom they receive a wage. The police have been after this guy for a long time, but evidence has always been hard to come by. And so, the unjust arrangement in Cottoncroft goes on – until the working kids decide to make a stand. They form a counter-gang called “The Pull” and they refuse to pay. Violence ensues, but the kids remain determined. Meanwhile, Charles Flitcroft comes across a new opportunity to make a tidy sum – recruiting local kids to attend “parties” and be paid £50 to be nice to the clientele. Little do the kids know that these parties have a sinister side to them.

Great novel. Reminded me of watching Grange Hill when I was in my teens, a series that occasionally tackled hard teenage issues. The story moves along at a cracking pace – almost too fast. Swindells doesn’t write in this “flash fiction” style in other novels of his that I’ve read. It works fine for the most part. My only criticism is that so many characters were being thrown at me in such a short space that I initially lost track of who was who until I got further into the book. The last quarter of the novel is a real page-turner.

Ultimately it’s too much of a thriller to be a novel that’s tackling any real issues with any hard advice. I was slightly apprehensive that the story would end up as some farcical kids-versus-adults tale that unconsciously encourages children to bite off more than they can chew in the real world, but to its credit the story shows all sides. Kids get hurt in Dosh, and badly – realistically.

Another top-notch teen thriller from Swindells.

North of Sunset by Henry Baum

There’s a new serial killer with an unusual MO stalking Hollywood: no one with a personalised number plate on his car is safe. The psychopath’s name is Curt Knudsen and he’s known to the public as the Vanity Plate Killer. His name is no secret to the reader, because this is no mystery story. Author Henry Baum likes to take you right inside the head of your killer, putting his life and his motivations in full view. But this is not only the tale of a serial killer. It’s a shifting-perspective novel that lets you see the thoughts and feelings of several very different and flawed individuals: a detective, a paparazzi photographer, a producer, and principally, top Hollywood actor Michael Sennet. Michael and the killer become inextricably linked, due to an unfortunate incident. A paparazzi photographer captures Michael’s infidelity on camera and tries to bribe the actor. Michael, in a fit of rage, clobbers the photographer to death. To cover his tracks, he dresses the scene to make it look as if the Vanity Plate Killer commited the crime. But Curt Knudsen isn’t too happy about having his image tarnished by a copycat. However, if you think the rest of the novel is about Curt out for Michael’s blood, think again. There are far more complex issues going on in the killer’s head. The story also has an amusing and insightful satirical side, poking fun at our tendency to become starstruck when encountering celebrities – celebrities who may well be immoral behind all the glitz and glam.

North of Sunset is very well written. The style is snappy and polished, a rare find in a self-published novel. The author also pulls off two very tricky things of note. The first is his decision to write a story about bad people. When you learn about how to tell a story effectively, they tell you to make the reader sympathise with the protagonist(s). Well, there’s not much to sympathise with here. Even the characters who aren’t killers are still wrapped up in their materialism, greed and adultery. And yet the novel remains a page-turner. Secondly, the author indulges in talking us through a lot of each character’s backstory. It’s usually better to reveal a character’s nature through his present actions in the story rather than communicating it through lengthy passages of exposition about the character’s past. And yet there’s no denying that Henry Baum is able to do just that and make it all very interesting. The author is involved in the Hollywood movie industry and rubs shoulders with the sort of people he’s writing about. The writing definitely carries an air of realism. As an author myself, but with a different background, I know I couldn’t handle the same material as Baum.

The only disappointment I found in the novel (and this is purely personal) is that I rather liked old Detective Harry Stein. He was the one character with a bit of moral backbone, and he seemed a little underused in the story. I would have liked to have seen him get a bigger slice of the action.

Nevertheless, North of Sunset is a very good thiller, both insightful and inventive. A worthy read for those who like crime fiction.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

A man called Moss is out hunting deer in the outback when, through his binoculars, he spots of two parked SUVs and what looks like several bodies scattered on the ground. Further investigation yields a trunkload of heroin and over two million dollars in cash. With everyone dead, Moss decides to take the money and run. But before he can get away properly, his own truck is spotted by some bad men who have arrived – clearly to see what went wrong with the trade. Moss’s licence plate is now known to them, and he’s smart enough to realise that come Monday morning, when the court house opens, it’ll be a small step for these men to find out all about him. He’s already taken the money, so there’s no going back … and it has cost him his identity. Moss now has to go on the run, with two different sets of bad guys and the police trying to track him town. But the worst threat comes from one other man, Chigurh, a psychopath with an agenda all his own.

No Country for Old Men starts strong and has all the makings of a fantastic thriller. In fact, it is a fantastic thriller, for about two thirds of its length. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and inventive. McCarthy demonstrates a particular skill at dialogue; I was riveted by many of the conversations that took place in the novel. But something goes wrong in the latter part of the novel. It starts when the reader begins a chapter to find that one of the principal characters has been murdered off-stage. The effect is so jarring that I had to flip back to make sure I hadn’t skipped a chapter. Other characters are simply talking about the death, and the reader is left to put two and two together. I understand that a writer is free to pull a stunt like this for “special effect” purposes, but here it simply broke the flow of the story; what had been, up to this point, linear and straightforward, became like a jumping record. Towards the end, the novel is written almost in a flash fiction style. In one paragraph, the sheriff asks the location of someone, and in the next, he’s addressing the person he was looking for, suddenly transported, as if by teleport, without so much as a scene division. In the latter part of the novel, McCarthy seems preoccupied with making a point about American culture and is prepared to put the “thriller” side of the story firmly in second place, to the detriment of the novel as a whole.

The message that McCarthy injects into the novel is that the moral fibre of America has gotten progressively worse and worse and is now beyond the point of recovery. Depressing stuff. I don’t live in the USA, but I have a much more positive outlook on humanity than that. Since I couldn’t appreciate McCarthy’s subtext, there was nothing I could do but judge the novel on its entertainment value. And I just wish McCarthy had plotted the final stretch of the story better, instead of leaving us high and dry, because the novel had so much going for it.

When I read McCarthy’s The Road (one of my favourite reads of 2007), I thought that his oddball punctuation wouldn’t work in a novel that had lots of characters and varied situations. But it turns out that No Country for Old Men is written in just the same style. And it still works, up to a point. The same problems arise that are present in The Road.

To sum up: No Country for Old Men is an excellent read, with some disappointing flaws.