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The Return of the King

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page BW07


By Stephen King

Scribner/Donald M. Grant. 845 pp. $35

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The long march to the Dark Tower began in 1970 when Stephen King, still a fledgling writer with outsized ambitions, was an undergraduate at the University of Maine. It was then that he wrote the opening chapters of the first book in the series. The project faltered for a while, was eventually revived and has since proceeded in fits and starts, with gaps as long as six years between installments. Recently, in the aftermath of his near-fatal accident in 1999, King turned his full attention to this long, protracted saga, producing three large volumes in rapid succession. The seventh and final volume, The Dark Tower, should more than satisfy his voracious readers. It is an absorbing, constantly surprising novel filled with true narrative magic, a fitting capstone to a uniquely American epic.

Inspiration for that epic comes from all points of the aesthetic compass. The primary source is Robert Browning's narrative poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which provided King with his central motif and a name for his carved-from-granite protagonist: Roland Deschain of Gilead. Other sources include J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Clifford D. Simak and the work of filmmakers such as John Sturges, Akira Kurosawa and -- most centrally -- Sergio Leone. Leone's sprawling "spaghetti western" "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," created the template for Roland -- a distinctly Clint Eastwood-like figure -- and for the alternately brutal and beautiful landscape through which he journeys.

That journey begins with the memorable opening sentence: "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed." Roland, a lineal descendant of King Arthur, is the last gunslinger in a rapidly decaying world. He has embarked on a quest for the eponymous tower, which stands at the nexus of all times and places, binding together an infinite number of parallel worlds. The tower, held in place by a number of intersecting "beams," is under attack by a psychotic entity known as the Crimson King, who plans to tear it down and rule forever in the chaos that will follow. Roland's twin goals are to preserve the tower -- and, by extension, the worlds it supports -- and to climb to the room at the top of that tower, where an unknown fate awaits him.

The first few volumes focus on Roland's efforts to draw a trio of prospective companions from three different versions of 20th-century America. The first of these is Eddie Dean, a heroin addict rapidly running out of hope and chances. The second is Odetta Holmes, a crippled civil rights activist with multiple personalities who eventually becomes known as Susannah. The third is Jake Chambers, an 11-year-old boy who returns from the dead to join Roland's cadre of apprentice gunslingers. These three form the core of the "ka-tet" (i.e., sacred fellowship) that will accompany Roland on his quest. They are joined, at various stages, by many others, including Father Donald Callahan, a central figure in Salem's Lot (1975), and a popular (and endangered) novelist named Stephen King, who has a crucial story to tell.

By the time the final volume opens, the ka-tet is closer to the tower after surviving a daunting array of pitched battles, supernatural encounters, out-of-body experiences and journeys between worlds. On the heels of the multiple cliffhangers that ended the previous volume, Song of Susannah, a number of critical developments are under way. Jake and Father Callahan move toward a fateful meeting in a Manhattan restaurant called the Dixie Pig. Susannah gives birth to a murderous, shape-shifting entity named Mordred. Roland himself, accompanied by Eddie Dean, travels to the town of Lowell, Maine, where the border between worlds has grown thin and permeable. In time, the diminished ka-tet reassembles, resuming its increasingly treacherous journey. Their path leads from Algul Siente, where imprisoned "breakers" chip away at the two remaining beams, back to Maine, where Stephen King awaits his life-altering encounter with an out-of-control Dodge Caravan. From there, the path moves through a blighted, wintry landscape leading to a field of roses where the Tower awaits.

King combines these diverse elements into an archetypal quest fantasy distinguished by its uniquely Western flavor, its emotional complexity and its sheer imaginative reach. In the course of nearly 4,000 pages, the Dark Tower saga fuses slightly skewed autobiography with an extravagant portrait of an imperiled multiverse. The series as a whole -- and this final volume in particular -- is filled with brilliantly rendered set pieces (including a stand-up comedy routine that turns unexpectedly lethal), cataclysmic encounters and moments of desolating tragedy. In the end, King holds it all together through sheer narrative muscle and his absolute commitment to his slowly unfolding -- and deeply personal -- vision.

As King notes in his afterword, the series has become his "ubertale." As such, it has gradually established a web of connections with much of his earlier fiction. The most prominent example is the reappearance of Father Callahan, who was last seen in ignominious retreat from the vampire-infested village of Jerusalem's Lot. In his new incarnation, "Pere" Callahan is an affecting, multidimensional character for whom redemption, which once seemed impossible, has come suddenly within reach.

Elsewhere in the series, Randall Flagg, architect of the apocalypse in The Stand (1978), shows up in a variety of guises, among them that of the man in black whose flight across the desert in volume one began the story. Also back are Dinky Earnshaw (Everything's Eventual) and Ted Brautigan ("Low Men in Yellow Coats"), who now work together as conscripted, ultimately rebellious "breakers." And Patrick Danville, who appeared briefly onstage in Insomnia, joins the ka-tet in the final stages of its journey and plays a pivotal role in the climactic confrontation with the Crimson King. Other, less overt references -- names, phrases and images that deliberately echo similar elements of earlier books -- are scattered throughout the text, creating the sense of a coherent, if loosely connected, fictional universe.

Although King's detractors -- a vocal, often contentious bunch -- will doubtless disagree, The Dark Tower stands as an imposing example of pure storytelling. King has always believed in the primal importance of story, and his entire career -- encompassing 40 novels and literally hundreds of shorter works -- is a reflection of that belief. On one level, the series as a whole is actually about stories, about the power of narrative to shape and color our individual lives. It is also, beneath its baroque, extravagant surface, about the things that make us human: love, loss, grief, honor, courage and hope. On a deeper level still, it is a meditation on the redemptive possibility of second chances, a subject King knows intimately. In bringing this massive project to conclusion, King has kept faith with his readers and made the best possible use of his own second chance. The Dark Tower is a humane, visionary epic and a true magnum opus. It will be around for a very long time. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and is editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

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