A Literary Happy Meal

Last week while on vacation, I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s new novella The Colorado Kid in a Gulf Coast Winn-Dixie, and merrily plowed through all 160-plus pages in less than a day. It’s a good little read–the literary equivalent of a Happy Meal, as this post’s title notes, and I don’t mean that in any condescending way. It’s easy reading, familiar territory with a slight twist, and even a prize at the end–a short, fascinating meditation on the nature of mystery. It’s a self-contained whodunit that–thank heaven–appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with King’s Dark Tower mythos, though I’m sure I missed the connection somewhere.

Of course, it’s got some stereotypical King traditions–it’s set in rural Maine, with the “ayuh”s ping-ponging back and forth every page. It’s got characters who are far too aware that they’re characters, if you get what I mean. And it could’ve used an editor–the freakin’ dead body doesn’t even show up until a third of the way through the book.

Still, it’s Stephen King, and that means it’s damn fine beach reading. King’s like a pair of sneakers–most folks give up sneakers after the age of, say, 22 except for weekends. (Not me; I’m shoes-optional most of the week. But the rest of you…) But you never miss a chance to slip back into those old sneakers–and, for me and plenty of other readers, King’s the same way.

I first read King during a high school trip–’Salem’s Lot, I think it was–and I remember thinking, Holy shit–this guy has done it, blended the everyday and the fantastic in a way that my dumbass teenaged brain could understand. King was the first writer who pulled literature off the shelf for me, who showed me that it could be both thematically bold and as mundane as–to tie it in a bow–a McDonald’s meal.

After that first book, I devoured King book by book–Christine, Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary, It–every month or so, I’d hit the used bookstore and grab another well-worn paperback for two bucks. I was entranced, drawn into the world of Derry, Maine and its surrounding regions. Even though I didn’t know a standpipe from a standing eight count, I felt like I knew King’s Maine–knew it well enough that I felt at home there during the eighteen hours I spent there during a quick camping trip a few years back.

Alas, King and I drifted apart–his proclivity toward ever-more-bloated books with correspondingly less heft and punch (Rose Madder, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things), and his increasing obsession with tying everything into his Dark Tower series–plus the fact that I didn’t need pop culture references to sweeten the taste of literature any longer–meant that I just didn’t need King that much anymore. I still picked up his short story collections the day they came out, but the novels–eh. They didn’t do it for me anymore.

Of course, somewhere around this time I had the chance to meet King twice. Once was when he was playing with his rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. I saw him play in a Georgetown club, and during a brief lull between songs, I shouted “I’m your Number One fan!” King responded by leaning into the microphone and telling me to shut the hell up.

The next time went a little smoother. King was speaking at a book conference at Ole Miss along with John Grisham, a meeting of the bestselling superpowers that sent a capacity audience at a university theater into fits of ecstasy. Afterward, I worked my way over toward King and–with a whole crowd of similarly starstruck people around me–asked him how his rock band was coming along. Not exactly an incisive question, but I think he was so glad to have someone who wasn’t trying to push their novel on him that he actually stopped and gave me some good info on what was shaking with the band. (He didn’t recognize me as the jackass from a couple years before in D.C.)

So where was this going? Oh, yeah–the latest Stephen King book. Like I said above, it’s a mystery–a man alive in Denver one morning shows up dead off the coast of Maine the next. The entire story is told through the perspective of two newspapermen, and the ending–well, obviously I won’t spoil it, but King works for it, then justifies it.

Go ahead; pick it up. It’s well worth your time. And King’s got me for another year.

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