Dreamcatcher, by Stephen King

This is the first fiction that King wrote after his drive-by accident that left him severely injured and in considerable pain. Unfortunately, it does not reflect the movement away from horror that I have detected in later novels written after the accident. Indeed, one wonders how much the pain he was enduring at the time prompted him to emphasize it here, especially the damaged hip suffered by Jonesy, one of his characters.

King’s begins this 2001 novel with news reports about flying saucers. Then he introduces his story. It is about four men who make a hunting trip to Maine each fall. And what happens to them when they are confronted by a stranger, a fellow hunter named Richard McCarthy, who has been infected by a mysterious phenomena. The phenomena turns out to be an alien with no good intentions, for aliens have landed on these forest hunting grounds in Maine, and they need to take over human bodies in order to survive.

The four men whose lives we follow are Beaver, a carpenter; Jonesy, a university professor; Henry, a depressed psychiatrist; and Pete, an alcoholic car salesman. They bonded as boys, and then more deeply when they protected Duddits, a smart, physically retarded boy who was constantly bullied at school. And these friends develop a kind of telepathic connection as a result, a precursor to telepathic skills that the aliens would bring. Indeed, this ability helps the five to collaborate here when they are faced with danger.

The core of this novel is the confrontations with evil that these five adults will have, confrontations involving other human beings as well as with those aliens. One also senses early on that King is a God-like author, and that not all of his heroes will survive. But which ones, that is the question.

The novel starts very slowly for me. There is too much of the boys’ past, how they make their connection with Duddits, and too much detail about the hunting trip that touches off their adventure. That is, how they get separated, how they encounter fear, and how the alien monsters enter their life. This is a normal approach by King, as he builds his story naturalistically, in order to get the reader to identify with his characters. But there is too much here. There is also too much farting, in which gestating alien monsters expel a terrible smell as they grow inside human bodies. This is a juvenile King at his mischievous worst. Indeed, he seems to take delight in describing these monsters and how they arrive on the scene—as if he is trying to revert to the scenes of horror that had made his work so popular before his accident.

Interestingly, the alien invasion is revealed to offer no immediate threat to all mankind, since these creatures cannot survive in the cold Maine air. Is this a cop out? To enable King to focus on his story in the second half of the book? On the gestating monsters and on Mr. Gray, who does offer a threat to some of our five friends. As well as to a part of New England, with his dastardly plot to poison the water supply.

And so…we have the army to the rescue! Ah, no, not quite. For King introduces the bloodthirsty Kurtz, who is intent on making a name for himself by not only killing all the aliens but also his own soldiers who disagree with him. And with Kurtz (note the name), the author introduces a familiar King theme, a distrust of government methods to protect its citizens.

But now, King puts his imagination to work, and creates a fascinating novel on two levels. The first step becomes confusing at times, for the aliens can read the minds of those they infect, which, in turn, enables the humans to also read their minds. Moreover, such humans can sense their own bodies being acted upon by aliens. Such as Mr. Gray, who inhabits Jonesy’s body. But this also means that Jonesy can read Mr. Gray’s mind. And plot against him. And, given all this reading of minds…well, this brings confusion at times, since certain characters are living on two levels, and King has to distinguish, for example, between whether Jonesy is doing certain things with his body or Mr. Gray is.

The title, Dreamcatcher, adds a vague explanation of this power of the five heroes to communicate with one another since their youthful protection of Duddits. It is like a fishnet of string, a charm from Indian lore that hangs from ceilings to guide and protect humans, and to ward off nightmares. For example, the horrors of this novel.

The second imaginative step is the chase scene that fills the final third of the book. In the lead car is Mr. Gray, in the body of Jonesy, racing with a dog about to give birth to one of the monsters. They are racing down the Maine coast to a Massachusetts reservoir to poison the waters of southern New England. Behind them is a second car with a soldier, Owen, who wishes to atone for the violence he committed in the army’s battle with the aliens and whom Kurtz believes has betrayed him. With Owen are Henry, the intellectual, and Duddits, whose communication abilities seems to hold the key to their survival. They want to prevent the poisoning of the water supply. And behind them in a third vehicle is Kurtz, who is determined to kill Owen for disobeying him, and two soldiers, Fredericks, who is driving, and the hapless Perlmutter, who is belching and farting, and about to “give birth” to another monster.

The reader races with King toward the conclusion, to the final confrontation of the people in the three cars. One expects a positive ending, but how it will work out keeps one in suspense. And then one is rewarded with the expected confrontation, the expected violence.

But there is an Epilogue. Which I usually don’t prefer. However, King becomes provocative here. He suggests that Jonesy’s liking of horror movies and books left him susceptible to Mr. Gray taking over his mind. Because he believed in the possibility of beings like Mr. Gray. And what does that say about all of King’s readers liking such tales as this?

Also, one more thing: King introduces God as a potential being that oversees mankind’s complex world and complex connections. “Who sings the lullaby,” Jonesy asks, “helps us go to sleep when we’re sad and scared?” And Henry answers: “Oh, God still does that.” But then kicks himself. He will not commit to God’s existence, no, but the possibility of Him remains. Perhaps as a kind of dreamcatcher? (June, 2017)

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

This 2011 novel is an admirable work. Beautifully written. And it is in my wheelhouse, a tale of youth told by from the perspective of a mature mind years later. In this case, it is the tale of a sea voyage taken by an 11-year-old boy, Michael, from his native Ceylon to London. He is to meet his mother there.

The work comprises his encounters with adult passengers, encounters he shares with two other young boys, the restive Cassius and the reflective Ramadhin. They have fun roaming the ship, as Ondaatje writes, “like freed mercury.” And absorbing the adult lives around them, even as they often do not understand what is really happening among the crew and their fellow passengers.

For a long while, the novel presents us with a series of disconnected incidents, all of them interesting and entertainingly told. And yet…what is the purpose of these adventures, the reader wonders. There is a stray dog, meetings in the bowels of the ship, a theatre troupe, a shackled prisoner, a mysterious garden, a burglar who deceives the boys into helping him, etc. The most spectacular adventure occurs when Michael and Cassius have themselves tied on the ship’s deck to experience a storm at sea.

And there are also the mysterious adults, beautiful cousin Emily, a mystifying mature Miss Lasqueti, a musician Mr. Mazappa, a wealthy aunt, Flavia Prins, a card-playing roommate, Mr. Hastie, plus others. Many of them eat at Michael’s assigned table, called the cat’s table because it is the most unworthy, the furthest from the captain’s.

But there is no connection between these adventures, which read like short stories, except showing the boys being exposed to adult life. Until…at certain intervals the author moves the story ahead, to Michael’s life in England and later in Canada, and his subsequent connections to his two pals and to Emily. Whereupon, we understand how all those shipboard adventures helped to form the adult lives of these youngsters. Nothing that happened on that voyage directly affected their future lives, no, but such disparate adventures helped prepare these young people for the adult world.

It is the voyage that is the heart of this novel, but it is those glimpses of future lives that give this novel its body. The novel would have no direction without them. And what works is that these incidents are interpreted from the perspective of adulthood, and that Michael’s later understanding of those experiences gives the work its emotional impact. In this, I disagree with Maslin in the Times who writes that “the melancholy of adult life seems ordinary by comparison.” No, it is the later reflections about that voyage that bring a focus and a sense of completeness to these characters, especially to Michael.

This work is quite different from The English Patient. Its characters are so young, and its setting is basically on a passenger ship. But it is also similar in that it exists on two time levels, and it is the connection between those two levels that gives the novel its meaning. In this case, the adventurous voyage that the boys experience, but do not fully comprehend, has a meaning that influences their later lives. And that influence, like the shipboard adventures, sometimes has a positive impact and sometimes a negative one.

Maslin quotes Ondaatje’s narration: “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You will find in this way the path of your life.” This is exactly how this work is constructed. The boy, innocent in the ways of the adult world, receives a lesson he is not aware of at the moment. And this experience of a world without supervising adults, of a time of no responsibility, will create in him a sense of independence that will both help him and frustrate him in his later attempt to give his life direction.

This novel reads as a very autobiographical work, because it captures so well a youthful rambunctiousness and innocence. But Ondaatje takes pains at the end to state that it is not autobiographical, neither its passengers, its crew, nor its narrative. However, I believe he may well have extrapolated from the impact on him of a real voyage to create this fictional voyage. Certainly, the presence of the ocean, the port of Aden, and the Suez Canal, as well as the shipboard atmosphere (the cabins, the dining room, the deck, the engine room, etc.) are convincingly real. The author had to have had similar shipboard experiences before he created these fresh characters and his narrative.

Michael has two relationships as an adult, one that fails, one that is inconclusive. He marries Massi, the sister of Ramadhin, in what seems an inevitable romance, but the marriage is dissolved by the author as quickly as it is generated, as if Michael’s failure is what matters, not the romance. But I was much more interested in Michael’s relationship with his cousin Emily, who on the ship awakened in him an awareness of sex. As the book closes, he meets her off the coast of Vancouver, and their relationship is left incomplete, but it is an intriguing relationship that the author might well have further explored.

Whether I shall read more Ondaatje may well depend on the story his has to tell. I was intrigued here by a story of youth, as seen from an adult perspective, as I was before by a story of war and responsibility. I am also impressed by Ondaatje’s style, which is simple, yet rich and reflective. And I am most impressed by the emotional and psychological issues that reverberate out of their past. (February, 2013)