Despite the standard cultural appraisal of Stephen King as America’s main peddler of the grotesque, critic and poolside reader alike rarely comment on the novelist’s proclivity for chronicling the type of pleasant American minutia (playing catch on a summer night, waiting on the bus) that may appear boring in the present, but always carries a hint of nostalgia when viewed through the sepia-tinted glasses of hindsight.
King’s always been more intrigued by the kid riding an old Schwinn through the trials of ‘60s childhood than in the demon clown chasing after him … and arguably even more interested in the Schwinn than the kid working the pedals. Likewise, the under-appreciated hallmark of King’s fiction has never been his tendency to commit nightmares to page, but his obsession with gooey, Norman-Rockwell sentimentality—nostalgia for skinny-dipping and ice cream parlors and whole days blown making out in the dark air-conditioning of a Saturday triple feature. It’s just that in King’s renderings of mid-20th century Americana, kids tend to have cleft-lips, clubfeet or uncles who want to take them to bed.
Once upon a time, this tendency to (sometimes with great clumsiness) turn every childhood fishing trip into a Wordsworthian voyage through the reverie of summers past drew the ire of your more pinky-in-the-air literary types, who rightfully pegged the pop-fiction for what it was at its worst— workmanlike prose propped up by excessive length and a keen feel for the universal details that would inspire sufficient identification for most Boomers to overlook patches of lackluster writing.
Occasionally though, at his best, King would nail the formula and hit one out of the park … only to be ignored or mocked by a literary establishment determined not to admit such a slinger of “pulp” (see Hollywood and Q. Tarantino). More recently, King’s been able to temper the Hallmark shtick and earn the applause of exactly those Faulknerphiles who used to mock the Maine native, both by contrasting the fever-pitch nostalgia with the grim realities of mid-century America (11/22/64, “The Man in the Black Suit”) and even foregoing sentimentality altogether (Full Dark, No Stars).
In light of this ability to switch gears, the truth regarding King’s place in the American literary canon probably sits somewhere between Harold Bloom’s continued lambasting of the man’s prose and all the hyperbolic celebratory adjectives that have been stacked to describe King’s importance as a writer over the past decade or so now that the gatekeepers appear to have begrudgingly acknowledged the guy as simply too influential to stonewall. This ignored middle truth holds that Stephen King has always had a lot more in common with Ray Bradbury than Chuck Palahniuk, and he sits more comfortably amidst the canon of weirdo American auteurs like David Lynch and Terrence Malick than purveyors of simple horror like Dean Koontz or Wes Craven.
All this explains why King’s decision to delve into the fringes of Evangelical Christianity in his latest novel, Revival, feels perfect and predictable and definitely interesting.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a complete reinvention. While we don’t deal with the typical King formula of Maine writer prancing through fill-in-the-blank spook-house, the protagonist here is still a Mainer who tells us his story via folksy witticism and, presumably, by writing it down. Sixties rock makes its usual appearance … as does the sort of vaguely Universalist Christianity that has haunted every King effort from The Stand (rather a more imaginative version of Left Behind if you squint at it sideways) to Bag of Bones.
The typical King world has always been one marked by order, albeit messy and relatable order. Rural Democrats and Methodists are understood to be “the good guys,” and at the end of the day, the Baptist Republicans display either a kind of rugged Eastwoodian righteousness or outright villainy. Rigid, self-righteous characters play against the humility of rough ‘n tumble lonely hearts who, more often than not, serve as King’s outlet for virtue in any given story. In other words, the good guys may cuss and the bad guys occasionally seem respectable, but despite the surface inversion, the moral order of King’s typical universe most resembles those childhood Methodist Sunday School sessions he muses about time and again.
The notable thing about Revival is that it represents one of the first times we’ve seen the author throw a rock through that stained glass window.
We’ve seen King pick on the overtly religious before, but here we have something else entirely. In Revival, he no longer holds up the simple faith of children in the good intention of the universe as something brave, virtuous or miraculous. Instead, it often serves as a punch line.
Now, none of this is overt, mind you. Don’t expect Chris Hitchens picking low-hanging fruit and pegging priests with it, nor Bill Maher debating illiterate religious truckers in Religulous. But whereas an ordered ultimate reality has typically served King as a peaceful lake from which a monster may emerge to ravage a village, only to be eventually driven back and locked beneath the depths during a textbook denouement, the narrator here uncharacteristically insists that no such order ever really existed … or can ever exist. The horror, in other words, is not the exception that proves the rule of goodness and order, but rather the rule itself.
Plot-wise, the book opens with one of the seven old standbys— a stranger comes to town. Per usual, we see this unfold through the eyes of a child from some non-existent town less than a stone’s throw away from Lewiston-Auburn. King’s talent for manipulating the formulas makes this far more interesting than logic would dictate. His details are just specific enough to seem real and just vague enough to be universal. Six-year-old Jamie Morton finds himself covered in shadow while playing in the dirt near his home on some summer afternoon in the early ‘60s. He looks up to discover what screenwriters call his “fifth-business”—or the man this book terms his “destiny”—eclipsing the sunlight.
Charles Jacobs, young and handsome, an earnest Methodist preacher fresh out of seminary, stops momentarily while making the rounds to greet the families of his new parishioners. The boy and the man play in the dirt for a moment, and we understand that the pastor has taken an interest in Jamie, who begins to accompany the reverend on errands, eventually hanging out in the youth room, where Jacobs wows Methodist pre-teens with his hobby— strange electrical tinkerings employed to illustrate parables. For instance, he shows off a toy Jesus who walks across an electrified track just beneath the surface of a lake in a model railroad countryside. King’s writing regarding the ins and outs of small town religion, it has to be emphasized, reads nothing less than pitch perfect, the work of someone once upon a time who saw clearly, vision neither blinded by revulsion nor blurred by devotion. In fact, the first two-thirds of the narrative (including this toy Jesus stuff) contains much of the most interesting writing in the novel … if not the majority of its commercially exciting action.
Obviously, King will not allow this rural stasis to remain.
When Jamie’s older brother loses his ability to speak after a skiing accident, the young reverend Jacobs hooks the kid up to a homemade electrical contraption that shoots currents through the mute boy’s head, resuscitating his voice and “healing” him.
This reviewer can’t speak to the convincing nature/lack thereof of the science on this, but it seems pretty thin, and readers with any sort of engineering degrees will probably be so shaken out of the fictive dream by the vague details that explain all electricity-related plot phenomena that they won’t finish the book. For those of us who got degrees on the other side of campus, science might as well be magic anyway, so it all pretty much jibes. Yes, we say, shooting alternating currents into a mute person’s brain probably would reconnect whatever wires have gotten crossed up there.
Yet in the aftermath of the healing, Jamie and readers alike feel that the event, while miraculous, contains some uncanny intangible that casts a cloud over the event. This sense heightens when, shortly thereafter, the preacher’s pretty wife and cherubic young son die in a horrific car crash that shakes the town and the preacher’s faith.
Three Sundays later, Jacobs returns to the pulpit and delivers his final sermon, a devastating rebuttal of organized religion that includes a less-than-kind appraisal of the intelligence and courage of such creed’s adherents. The congregation, obviously shocked, lets fly its tomatoes, and the preacher quickly loses his job.
King writes the rant—and his character Jacobs delivers it—convincingly enough to make engaging reading. The pure pathos feels sufficiently prescient to make even devout readers shudder a little, although the takedown doesn’t necessarily contain anything a well-read person on either side of the belief chasm hasn’t heard of or thought before. However, as with True Detective’s Rust Cohle, or even Nietzsche himself, the source is charismatic enough to breathe new life into old lines.
There will be no spoilers here, but you would be right to guess that Jamie and the Reverend meet again, and that when this happens, neither could accurately be described as being young. Likewise, it requires no big leap to realize that the Reverend eventually takes his electrical healing extravaganza on the road under the auspice of Christianity, and that this brings him again into contact with Jamie, now a career musician. Hilarity (of a kind) ensues, lives unravel and the novel races to the type of firework-laden conclusion that separates commercial fiction from “literature.” The obvious tension that teases out much of the book’s armchair philosophizing comes from juxtaposing the Reverend’s status as bitter agnostic (which, who can blame him?) with his newfound fame as a sought-after Christian faith healer.
It’s admittedly fun to watch King’s preacher and cynical rock ‘n’ roll narrator skewer the crowds at faith healings with lines like, “They don’t deserve the truth and that’s okay because they don’t want it. They don’t want the Beatitudes or the Song of Solomon, either. They only want to be healed.” Then you remember that the type of people who attend such events more often show up out of desperation than stupidity, and that making these kinds of heavy proclamations can get to be a little like patting yourself on the back for slamming a monster dunk through one of those plastic toy basketball hoops for toddlers.
At times, King’s prose appears to recognize this too, painting the Reverend’s dark resentment as suffocating. Still, the book’s plot ultimately comes down hard on the side of something much worse than cynicism or even nihilism.
Why does this ultimately feel so dissatisfying? Well, the great attention paid to detail early in the novel, attention spent romanticizing every aspect of early life, from the way dirt feels under your fingernails as a five-year-old to the way the air smelled the night you lost your virginity, seems totally invalidated by the conclusions the plot seems to draw for readers. This is life, the book seems to say. Isn’t it beautiful and mysterious and radiating with possibility? Weren’t the days of your youth filled with the stuff dreams are made of? And doesn’t this all inspire a feeling deep down that everything will be alright? A feeling almost strong enough to make religion and the notion of an afterlife seem like convincing philosophical propositions?
Well, shake out of it. Life in Revival turns out to be worse than meaningless. Its meaning is pure, undefiled horror. Love and logic essentially amount to red herrings, present only to lull you into a false sense of security.
The way all of King’s folksy New England wisdom and down-home philosophizing on the innocent pleasures of youth nose-dives into this abyss feels almost cruel, like somebody taking the time to wrap a bunch of presents in beautiful colored paper and place them under the tree for a child to open, only to cackle and point with glee when the packages turn out to be filled with something horrible and grotesque. The child … or the reader, in this case … looks over at the giver, beguiled and deflated.
What confuses a reader/reviewer is that this isn’t totally uninteresting. As per usual with King, burning through this novel is fun, and most won’t regret it. And make no mistake, not all endings must be happy, or even life affirming. However, like their happy counterparts, tragedies must be earned.
In Revival, King gives us the photo-negative of a ‘70s sitcom that spends 22 minutes plunging characters into a problem only to have them miraculously come out on the other side, unscathed in a deeply unsatisfying and improbable final few scenes. Like David Lynch, King often asks questions far better than he answers them … at least in this book. Unlike Lynch, King hasn’t managed to ensure that the universe of Revival where these questions and answers unfold feels internally consistent. (And we never get close to the territory of someone like Malick, a master with the tonal and narrative chops to not only justify his romanticized montages of daily life but also to illuminate them by the final third of his movies. See The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, etc….)
Senseless hatred may pervade reality, and rendering this random negativity may read as realism. Most of us, though, cite reasons other than reality-simulation to devote a dozen or so hours to reading a piece of fiction. We already have stories in which the blissful highs of love and the innocence of childhood seem wildly inconsistent, senselessly at odds with both the tone and philosophy of later plot points (cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and worldwide famine and a planet asphyxiating in the fumes of the burnt bones of its earliest citizens, etc.).
We live these stories every day in the real world. We don’t need fiction pulling the same trick on us. Many people read to escape, and that’s not good or bad; it just is. But it seems odd for somebody as convinced of the goodness of human nature as Stephen King to spend a year writing a story that lulls readers into a sense of romantic escape for the better part of 400 pages and then, just when they’re most vulnerable, throws boiling water in their faces, screaming, “Welcome to the real world, jackass!”
Keaton Lamle lives with his wife, Alex, in Atlanta, where he writes, teaches writing and makes music. Follow him on Twitter if you want to see pictures of his dog.