Portents of a Future King

By Bill Sheehan,
the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree" and co-editor of the recent anthology "Lords of the Razor"
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BLAZE

By Richard Bachman

Scribner. 285 pp. $25

"Blaze" is the seventh novel to appear under Stephen King's indefatigable pseudonym, Richard Bachman. To date, the Bachman books have fallen into two groups. The first consists of lively but undistinguished apprentice works, such as "Rage," "Roadwork" and "The Running Man," which first appeared as paperback originals. These were followed by "Thinner" (1984) and "The Regulators" (1996), lesser efforts that are long on action but short on nuance. Chronologically, "Blaze " falls into the former category. It is, as King states in his witty forward, a "trunk novel" completed in 1973, one year before the publication of "Carrie" propelled him to national prominence.

Perhaps because it was written relatively late in his apprenticeship (and perhaps because it's had the benefit of a recent stylistic makeover), "Blaze" emerges as the best of the Bachman books, a minor but solidly entertaining addition to King's prodigious body of work.

"Blaze" explores, with impressive economy, the short, unhappy life of Clayton Blaisdell Jr., a.k.a. Blaze. A giant of a man with enormous physical strength and the mind of a 10-year-old, Blaze is one of the world's perennial victims. Once a bright, even precocious child, Blaze suffers irreversible brain damage at the hands of his drunken, abusive father. Afterward, he becomes a ward of the state, spending his childhood and adolescence in the insular society of Hetton House, a bleak, loveless "poor farm for kids."

Trapped in a grim, unyielding world, Blaze adapts by befriending a smaller, smarter boy named John Cheltzman. The two complete each other, and their symbiotic relationship helps Blaze survive the Darwinian society of Hetton House and establishes the pattern of his subsequent adult relationships.

As the novel opens, Blaze is deep in conversation with the latest of his partner/mentors, a fast-talking con man named George. George is watching while Blaze attempts to hot-wire a car, and is browbeating him mercilessly in the process. As the scene progresses, we learn that the volatile George is actually dead, murdered in a gambling dispute several weeks before. Dead or not, George remains a central figure in Blaze's life, a deeply internalized presence that haunts the novel.

We also learn that the car theft is a preliminary step in a much more dangerous enterprise: the kidnapping of Joe Gerard, infant heir to a local Maine shipping dynasty. This harebrained scheme, devised by George in the weeks before his death, has taken on a posthumous life of its own. Intermittently advised and accompanied by George, Blaze attempts to fulfill his partner's dream of the One Big Score, and sets in motion a chain of events that can end only in tragedy.

Once the pieces are assembled, King moves the narrative swiftly forward along two parallel tracks, one set in the present, the other aimed at reconstructing the formative events of Blaze's past. The primary track follows the progress of the kidnapping from the initial stages to the inevitable end. King sketches in the high points of the drama -- the planning, the crime, the incriminating mistakes, the subsequent statewide manhunt -- in spare, unusually disciplined prose that generates a surprising amount of suspense -- no small feat given the familiarity of the material.

Originality, it must be said, has never been King's strong suit. His real strengths -- and the true sources of his enduring appeal -- lie in other areas: his wide-ranging sympathy, his deceptively artless command of narrative, and his absolute belief in the primal importance of stories.

These qualities are particularly evident in the carefully constructed back story that periodically interrupts the central narrative. King is at his best in these sections, which provide a cumulative portrait of the forces that shaped -- and ultimately warped -- Blaze's life: brutal, unsympathetic teachers; acquisitive (and equally brutal) foster families; and the sheer bad luck that closes one door after another, limiting Blaze's choices and pushing him toward his final, fatal mistake.

"Blaze" is certainly no undiscovered masterpiece. It lacks the sweep and power of King's best fiction, and it sometimes substitutes sentiment for emotion. But it is more than a curiosity, more than a footnote in a popular writer's career, and it's oddly compelling. Ultimately, "Blaze" stands on its own and deserves to be judged for what it is: a small, honestly crafted story filled with genuine narrative pleasures, and with the promise of better things to come.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company