*opens up files* *blows off dust*
There was a thing last month—as there is every year—that kind of ate my brain and spat me out on the other side with the writing stamina tapped. (I won, for the record.) However, with my work schedule, it was a little harder this year to pound out two thousand plus words of a novel and do this. (Yeah, I meant to do a notification post, but see above about my brain being eaten.) But I am back and ready to tackle the rest of this brave new world with such characters in it.
Let’s talk about the epitaphs that begin Book II: Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” To be honest, I’m not as familiar with these two songs as I am with some of the other lyrics that get quoted throughout the book. But consider that the lyrics here are more about the idea of what America is, especially in the context of the end of the 20th century, I think they do touch on something important that’s going to be a huge part of Book II—should the end of the world occur, are the survivors still considered citizens of their respective countries? Are we still obligated to live by the Constitution should the unthinkable happen in the next two weeks? Or do we say “Fuck this noise,” and start anew?
Food for thought.
There was a dead man lying in the middle of Main Street in May, Oklahoma.
Nick wasn’t surprised. He had seen a lot of corpses since leaving Shoyo, and he suspected he hadn’t seen a thousandth of all the dead people he must have passed…
But when the dead man sat up, such an explosion of terror rose in him that he again lost control of his bike.
Oh, Tom Cullen. I am not a huge fan of Tom Cullen. Specifically in how King writes his characterization, but it’s a big plot point. We’ll talk about it at length whenever I get there. (To the plot point, I mean.)
But you do have to give King credit for at least giving Nick an obstacle when he finally encounters someone. It’s not like with Sheriff Baker, where Nick could just grab a legal pad and write out his entire life story in one night. The fact being that Tom can’t read and needs very simple gestures just to understand what’s going on is a lot harder on Nick.
Most folks took Tom’s sudden blankouts as a further sign of retardation, but they were actually instances of nearly normal thinking. The human thinking process is based (or so the psychologists tell us) on deduction and induction, and the retarded person is incapable of making these deductive and inductive leaps…Tom Cullen was not severely retarded, and he was capable of making simple connection.
This is going to be a long chapter.
Tom finally figures out that Nick is deaf-mute, just as Nick makes his way into a drugstore to get some food. The two have lunch and Nick dozes off. He figures that he might as well leave Tom on his own, but then reconsiders this, offering to take Tom with him.
This is one of the few chapters that deals with actual weather while travelling—it’s surprising that in all this time, there’s been no sudden storms or rain showers for any of our weary travelers (particularly considering how inexperienced everyone is). But barely out of the town of May, Oklahoma:
A horrible darkness was coming out of the west. It was not a cloud; it was more like a total absence of light. It was in the shape of a funnel, and at first glance it looked a thousand feet high. It was wider at the top than at the bottom; the bottom was not quite touching the earth. At its summit, the very clouds seemed to be fleeing from it, as if it possessed some mysterious power of repulsion.
Tom pulls Nick for cover, and they wait out the twister—which is also hinted at to carry some trace of Randall Flagg, although the tornado probably happened naturally—and as luck would have it, their bikes are untouched. And thus they move on.
On their journey, Nick and Tom encounter a herd of buffalo at one point, and a thematic crow. Nick also begins wondering whether or not they’re going to encounter any other human being at this point—and I like that it’s constantly mentioned that taking a car would be an incredibly bad idea, especially on major highways.
Speaking of finding people,
She and Nick stared at each other across half the length of the deserted drugstore, both frozen now. Then the bottle of perfume dropped from her fingers, shattered like a bomb, and a hothouse reek filled the store, making it smell like a funeral parlor.
“Jesus, are you real?” she asked in a trembling voice.
Oh, Julie. How I really had hoped you would be a one-off character who would have been left to her own devices.
Julie Lawry, age nineteen, is only thinking of one thing in the post-plague world, and that is that is the classic “Hey baby, wanna repopulate?” (Probably not so much on the repopulation front. But the act of repopulation, she’s all for that.) And much like Rita Blakemoor, I just want to jump into this book and slap this girl. I know that she’s young and therefore at least a little bit stupid for her own good, but good Lord. Smack some sense into her.
Nick suddenly half turned to Julie, unable to bear her smug grin. He hit her open-handed, hit her hard.
I DIDN’T MEAN THAT LITERALLY, NICK.
Unlike Larry a few chapters earlier, Nick’s unwilling to sit down and write out a whole diatribe explaining the facts of life as it is now to Julie. So, after leaving her four words—“We don’t need you”—and pulling out his gun for emphasis (no, that’s not a metaphor), Nick goes off to help Tom out. Julie, for what it’s worth, shoots at the both of them and drives them out of town. And that’s all we get of Julie Lawry.
For a few hundred or so pages
But Julie Lawry is not the last person we see in this chapter. In the last few paragraphs, a truck comes trundling by.
…”Holy Christ on a carousel, am I glad to see you boys? I guess I am. Climb on up here and let’s see where we’re going.”
That was how Nick and Tom met Ralph Brentner.
I have to confess here—it took me a while just to get through these next couple of chapters. Stephen King is one of those authors I look at sometimes and think, “Dude, does your editor even look at this?” (Yes, I know this is the extended edition of The Stand, but I’ve been eyeing Under the Dome for two years now thinking “Oh my God how am I going to finish this?”) Mainly because the majority of these chapters are dealing with solitary characters, and so unlike Stu and Frannie’s group where conversations break up the monotony, there’s long passages of nothing but a character’s thoughts with very few things actually happening. (And not to mention, a lot happens in the space of one chapter—I was thinking that that last one with Nick and Tom could have been split up a little.)
Larry’s been continuing his way up the East Coast on his own and now on foot. He’s still guilty over what happened to Rita, and feels that, yes, maybe Larry ought to join her as well.
It’s also telling that in this post-apocalypse thus far, we really haven’t seen a lot of hostile activity. There was one woman waaaay back during Chapter 38 (no great loss sob) and while Harold was initially antagonistic towards Stu, he eventually gave in. (No, Flagg finding Lloyd in the prison doesn’t count in this because plot-related reasons.) There’s really not been a standoff or full-out conflict between the survivors at this point. Most of the time when people have encountered each other on the road, they sit down, have beers and then pack up and leave together. It’s sort of a nice hitchhiking holiday, except, y’know, everyone else is dead.
So, it’s a jarring but pleasing moment when Larry’s on his own, and he finally gets some sleep to see this:
Near the creek’s edge, the luxuriant screen of bushes rattled a little as something moved stealthily through them, paused, moved again. After a time, a boy emerged…In his right hand he held a butcher knife..
A woman’s voice, soft but firm, said: “No.”
He turned to her, head cocked and listening, the knife still raised. His attitude was both questioning and disappointed.
“We’ll watch and see,” the woman’s voice said.
Pleasing in that “Oh hey, there’s some people who aren’t going to think Larry’s a nice guy,” not “Yes, please stab him so that we may all move on.”
It’s also great to see the dual perspectives of Larry and the boy’s, and how this kid Joe wants to hurt something and he doesn’t care what. Which is where Nadine comes in.
Nadine is…Nadine. What I like about going back and rereading really good books is that I pick up on little hints and clues that some times, my brain doesn’t process and it’s not until the nth reading that I finally get it. (Like how the last time I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally figure out that “Wait, did he just randomly kill off this character? HOW DID I MISS THIS?” Or half of the Discworld jokes, I swear.) And so when I read Nadine’s first introduction here,
She was pure. She was waiting. There had been dreams. Once, in college, there had been the Ouija board. And she wondered again if this man might be the one.
And at first I roll my eyes and think “Oh goodie, let me get my rage bat.” But because this book is so long and because not everything is brow-beaten into the reader, it’s easy to forget that King brings this up very early on. (The thing with the Ouija board is another one of those parts I read over and over again, and yes, I do forget that it pops up here. Chekov, here’s a gun. Go hang it up somewhere.)
For what it’s worth, Larry does figure out pretty early on that he’s being trailed by somebody, although it does feel different from the dreams of the dark man. Joe and Nadine continue to stalk Larry all the way up through Maine, always just keeping their distance, never getting too close.
[Larry] turned first left, then right, and saw the same thing happening in each direction, as far as he could see…combers, waves, spray, most of all an endless glut of color that took his breath away.
He was at land’s end.
In the middle of this peaceful and contemplative moment on Larry’s end, Joe picks this time to attack. Larry is promptly WTFing while trying to fight off the kid, as Nadine takes her sweet time running down the cliff and screaming for the two to stop. Larry finally pins Joe down and the two adults convince Joe to drop the knife. And then everyone decides to play nice and travel together.
(For those of you who are reading along, or have read the book more recently than I have, allow me to point out that I’m skimming a hell of a lot here in the summary. Because nothing really happens for a good chunk of the rest of the chapter. Scratch that, one thing happens: Joe is apparently an awesome guitar player and can play by ear. )
So we’re just going to fast forward to when the threesome gets to Ogunquit. Joe runs off ahead and comes across a barn…with directions written on the roof! By a Harold Lauder! People, coming together in the post-apocalypse!
“The plague center!” Nadine said…”Why didn’t I think of it? I read an article about it in the Sunday supplement magazine not three months ago! They’ve gone there!”
“If they’re still alive.”
The other part I really do like about this chapter is that we’ve got a different interaction between the survivors, and I like Larry’s interpretation of Harold, even though it’s lampshaded by Larry himself. But I like how Larry follows the trail of Payday wrappers and pieces together Harold’s plans of going out of Ogunquit. And maybe because it’s also because I’m so used to seeing newer tech in apocalyptic stories, so the whole idea of signal-boosting and having a running message is a little too easy. I like the road signs, even if it may turn out that Harold and the others meet a bad end (spoiler: they don’t. Well, not immediately). It brings a bit of mystery to one part of the story.
Anyway. Larry figures out that they ought to give motorcycles another shot and convinces Nadine to at least learn how to ride one before they set off the next day. While trying to find gasoline, he comes across more Stations of Harold and gets Joe to help him out…and Joe finally speaks!
Okay, more skimming—seriously how much more of this chapter is there? Yes, Nadine says it’s like a quest, personal history repeating for Larry—I’m not saying that nothing happens in these chapters, but you feel like shouting “GET ON WITH IT!” (and it also makes for really boring commentary). Nadine reveals her backstory, Joe says a few more things, another prophetic dream involving Mother Abagail and the dark man—oh, hey:
The woman continued to stare at [Larry] wordlessly for a moment and then walked slowly away from him and toward Nadine.
“I’m so pleased…” she began, “…so pleased to meet you.” She stumbled a little. “Oh my God, are you really people?”
“Yes,” Nadine said.
…And that was how they met Lucy Swann.
Lucy reveals that she’s been having bad dreams ever since her family died, and Joe starts yelling on about a black man who chases him in his dreams. Larry starts putting things together, and comes up with four. He starts asking the others if they’ve ever dreamt of an old woman in Nebraska. And then Nadine starts screaming at him to shut up about the old lady. Because she doesn’t dream and doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Mmhm. You keep telling us that, Nadine.
To make the extremely long chapter shorter, the new quartet finally makes it to Stovington and everyone’s dead,
Dave Larry. But lo! There is another sign on the horizon:
WE ARE MOVING WEST TO NEBRASKA STAY ON OUR ROUTE WATCH FOR SIGNS.