THE COLORADO KID
By Stephen King
Hard Case. 184 pp. Paperback, $5.99
Stephen King's new novel is the highest-profile offering in a new paperback series from Hard Case Crime that features both original noir and new editions of pulp classics from yesteryear, complete with original cover art in the bold, sexy, sometimes lurid style of 1950s paperbacks. "The Colorado Kid" is an odd book. It has only three characters who matter, or four if you count the dead man.
The live characters are 90-year-old Vince and 65-year-old Dave -- the entire editorial staff of the Weekly Islander, published on the Maine island of Moose-Lookit -- and comely Stephanie, their 22-year-old summer intern. She finds these garrulous codgers adorable ("she loved these two old buzzards"), and you'd better find them adorable, too, or you're likely to hate this book. The old buzzards are equally enamored of Steffi, whom they mostly call "dear" or "dearheart." The plot of the novel, such as it is, involves them telling her, slowly, with many digressions, about a mystery that has haunted their island for 25 years.
But King takes his own sweet time getting to that mystery, so we'll postpone it for a moment, too. The first third of the book has the codgers telling Steffi about some of the region's other unsolved mysteries, which include the poisoning at the church picnic, the disappearance of the fishing boat's crew and the lights that appeared in the sky over the Little League game. As the men speak, King has them indulge heavily in the Maine dialect -- the book is a crash course in how folks talk up there. Central to their speech, King makes all too clear, is "ayuh, the Yankee word which seems to mean both yes and is that so." In case we don't get it, he has the two men use "ayuh" maybe 50 or 60 times, which really isn't necessary, unless his goal is to drive the reader nuts, a possibility I don't rule out.
King is also fond of "accourse," which of course means "of course," and has them say it maybe 20 times, including twice in one sentence. There are other linguistic tips, such as: "In Vince's Yankee accent, bury rhymed with furry" and "Dinner -- pronounced dinnah -- was what you ate from your lunchpail at noon." He even tosses in a man on "hossback." When King thinks we've mastered the lingo, he eases into his mystery. Back in 1980 a man was found dead on the beach. He was about 40, had no identification and appeared to have choked on some meat he was eating. He had a pack of cigarettes on him, although he didn't smoke, and a Russian coin. The police call it an accidental death, but the two reporters aren't so sure. Sixteen months later, they find out that the man was from Colorado. One day he left his family and his job and flew, apparently by chartered jet, to Maine, only to die that night. That is all the two reporters can learn; they lack the resources for a full-scale investigation, and the police continue to have no interest in the case. Did the man go to Maine voluntarily or was he abducted? What does the Russian coin mean?
A conventional mystery would lay all this out in the first chapter or two, and the rest of the book would have a policeman or private eye or reporter going to Denver, talking to the man's friends, finding out if he had a girlfriend or mysterious pals or a secret life, and eventually risking his life while uncovering a huge international conspiracy that all turns on that Russian coin. Or whatever. But King rejects convention. He stretches the mystery out to novel-length, by endless padding, and offers no solution. Instead, he provides a five-page afterword, which begins, "Depending on whether you liked or hated 'The Colorado Kid' (I think for many people there'll be no middle ground on this one, and that's fine with me), you have my friend Scott to thank or blame." Scott, he explains, gave him a newspaper clipping about a young woman found dead on a beach with no identification.
"Mystery is my subject here," King goes on to say, "and I am aware that many readers will feel cheated, even angry, by my failure to provide a solution to the one posed." But "I'm really not interested in the solution but in the mystery." He adds that life is mystery, and maybe "it's the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition- derby world." (That, for me, was the best line in the book.) The author concludes, defensively for such a rich and famous fellow, "But if you tell me I fell down on the job and didn't tell all of this story there was to tell, I say you're all wrong."
King has thus given us not only his novel but his review of it, and unsurprisingly he finds it a quite satisfactory, even fascinating piece of work. Well, ayuh, I beg to differ. King has perhaps earned the right to be perverse, and perhaps has loyal fans will love his "story-that- was-not-a-story," as he calls it, but I found "The Colorado Kid" agonizing. King is right in saying that life is a mystery, but the point of art is to make sense out of the mystery, to give us at least the illusion that there is order and meaning in the chaos around us. That's what thrillers are all about. King is right that many readers will feel cheated. I recall him once saying in an interview that he is to the fiction game what McDonald's is to the restaurant business. This time, readers must ask, "Where's the beef?"