How fair is this? On Halloween, we creep into Stephen King’s lair for terrors and scares, but here he is offering us insight and courage instead. You’ll chew through a few chapters of “Elevation” before realizing there is no razor blade in this caramel apple. King’s new novel is trick and treat, a poignant parable of prejudice overcome and resentment healed. The calls are coming from INSIDE OUR CONSCIENCE!
What’s most surprising about “Elevation” is that this would seem the perfect moment for King to twist the fury of his Twitter feed into a story of gnashing invective against President Trump. But perhaps the Master of Fright knows we’re getting plenty of horror from the White House. Besides, as King told me two years ago, he’s already written a novel about Trump: “The Dead Zone.”
But if this is a new King, fans of his work will recognize an old motif borrowed from the 1984 novel “Thinner.” In that grim story, a lawyer is cursed with infinite weight loss — a kind of Jenny Craig nightmare inspired by King’s efforts to shed pounds. In “Elevation,” the predicament is similar but less macabre: Scott Carey is losing weight but not mass. On the outside, he appears the same as always — an athletic 42-year-old man who looks about 230 pounds. But every time he weighs himself, the scale says he’s lighter. What’s weirder, it doesn’t matter what he’s wearing — or even what he’s holding. His weight just keeps dropping.
Of course, this story takes place in King’s familiar setting: Castle Rock, that small town in Maine cursed by inexplicable phenomena such as killer trucks, deadly pranks and Sen. Susan Collins. This time, though, Scott’s weight-loss troubles are the only mystery, a private tear in the fabric of an otherwise pedestrian reality, and Scott is not particularly interested in finding an explanation or a cure. At the opening of the novel, he consults with a retired doctor who wisely tells him, “I doubt very much if this is something that can be scientifically investigated.” That confirms Scott’s decision. He wants no part of any aggressive hospital treatments or government studies. He will wane with dignity.
King presents this with such tender wit that it’s hard to keep in mind how supernatural it is. (The book even sports sweet pen-and-ink illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer that risk making the whole package look like something Richard Paul Evans would put under the Christmas tree.) We simply follow Scott’s lead, turning our attention toward an everyday drama of neighborhood life: Two women have recently moved in down the street, and they consistently fail to curb their dogs. Scott is seriously annoyed.
Ah, here we go — Cujo is back!
But no. This is not a novel about unleashed fury. It’s a novel about measured response, about civil respect, about how we should behave in our small, gossipy towns. Think of it as “Salem’s Ought.”
When Scott politely asks the women to pick up after their dogs, he’s rudely rebuffed but does not lose his temper. In fact, he’s provoked to extra courtesy. “All I want,” he says, “is for us to be good neighbors.” What develops is a quiet, moral comedy as Scott strives for greater and greater civility, which only irritates one of the women more. And when he publicly defends them against a homophobic bully, Scott finds himself drawn into an ugly conflict that has divided the town.
Ah, here we go — like the deadly standoff in “Sleeping Beauties.”
Again, no! This is a novel about exemplary behavior, about tensions resolved by adults capable of evolving beyond their narrow-minded beliefs.
Most of Castle Rock — a solidly Republican town — is willing to tolerate lesbians, but married lesbians? “That’s a deal-breaker for lots of folks,” an acquaintance tells Scott. “The county went for Trump three-to-one in ’16 and they think our stonebrain governor walks on water. If those women had kept it on the down-low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.” Given that embedded bigotry, Scott’s modest crusade for social enlightenment may be naive, but it couldn’t be more relevant.
If “Elevation” isn’t an attack on Trump, it is an implicit rebuke to his crude invective and toxic divisiveness. With a skeleton crew of friends, Scott gracefully raises the town’s consciousness and expands the circumference of its appreciation. It’s a reminder of the kind of good spirit that still fills America, no matter what demagoguery we’re enduring from the top.
And yet this novel may repel stridently progressive readers as much as it does staunchly conservative ones — which, I suspect, will not trouble King too much. Having hundreds of millions of copies in print must provide a handy shield against the winds of confirmed prejudice or political correctness. But nowadays, few young fiction writers would be so tone-deaf as to create a monochromatic city or give us a shrill lesbian or celebrate a white savior who literally ascends toward heaven.
Scoff at those hoary cliches if you must, but King, now 71, is on the side of the angels. He has written a slim book about an ordinary man in an extraordinary condition rising above hatred and learning to live with tact and dignity. That’s not much of a Halloween book, but it’s well timed for our terrifying season.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Stephen King
Scribner. 146 pp. $19.95.