Review

Review

Book Review: 'A Face in the Crowd,' by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan

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The news that Stephen King would not be publishing a new book in the fall/winter of 2012 was met with some dismay.  This isn’t entirely fans’ fault, with their high expectations and occasional senses of entitlement.  Since at least 2008, they’d been trained to expect this – the steady autumn parade of Just After Sunset, Under the Dome, Full Dark, No Stars, and 11/22/63 had rendered them Pavlovian reading machines.  Oh, new books were coming.  They’d known about Doctor Sleep for ages, and news of the new Hard Case Crime paperback original, Joyland, was just beginning to emerge.  But those were 2013 books.  What of the now, in the empty void left in the back half of 2012, especially following King’s stellar return to the Dark Tower milieu with Wind Through the Keyhole?  

In general, Stephen King doesn’t let the publishing side of his writing career go fallow for long, and though we weren’t getting a proper novel or collection this fall, King quite graciously chose to fill the gap with a steady stream of short stories.  The two-part freak-out of “In the Tall Grass,” written with his son, the novelist Joe Hill, charged through summer, bloody and hungry.  Now, we are greeted with an all-new collaboration, this time with King’s Faithful co-author Stewart O’Nan: a short ebook called “Face in the Crowd.”

King actually discusses the genesis of the project in Faithful, a non-fiction book about the Red Sox’ 2004 winning season (also written by King and O’Nan):

[L]ast night … I had this wonderful idea for a story. What if a guy watches a lot of baseball games on TV, maybe because he's a shut-in or an invalid (or maybe because he's doing a book on the subject, poor schmuck), and one night he sees his best friend from childhood, who was killed in a car crash, sitting in one of the seats behind the backstop? Yow! And the kid is still ten! He never claps or cheers (never picks his nose or talks on his cell phone, for that matter), just sits there and watches the game... or maybe he's watching the main character of the story, right through the TV. After that the protagonist sees him every night at every game, sometimes at Fenway, sometimes at Camden Yards, sometimes at the CreepyDome up in Toronto, but every time there are more people the poor freaked-out guy knew, sitting all around him: this guy's dead friends and relatives, all sitting in the background at the ballpark. I could call the story "Spectators." I think it's a very nasty little idea. 

Very nasty indeed, and King and O’Nan’s finished tale hews very close to this original vision.  It also fits in neatly with themes King has been exploring in his short stories lately, providing a sort of culmination of concepts for his recent fiction.  “A Face in the Crowd” concerns Dean Evers, a transplanted New Englander now living in Florida – living alone since his wife Ellie died.  We’re drawn into his story immediately, thinking this a new Insomnia writtten more intimately.  The details of Ellie’s death and Dean’s reaction are heartbreaking, and at once we’re on Evers’ side, ready to root and fear for him, whatever the story calls for.  

That doesn’t last.  As we plunge deeper into the story, we discover that Dean Evers probably isn’t the world’s nicest man.  We come by this knowledge slowly, at each step trying to give Evers the benefit of the doubt and forgive him his trespasses … and at each step, we are thwarted by his nature.  What’s most interesting is that King and O’Nan continue to sympathize with him, even as his darker secrets come to the fore, forcing readers to decide whether Evers is a good man who has done bad things, or a bad man who put on appearances.  

The dead people who begin appearing behind home plate on the baseball games Evers watches are at first a benign menace.  He sees people he hated, people he’d wronged.  Only when he sees his wife – and actually communicates with her – do we start to feel really uneasy.  Dean Evers is a man who not only refuses to repent for his sins, he refuses to acknowledge them … at least, until it’s too late.  

King and O’Nan’s Faithful was well-received, but could feel impenetrable to those who aren’t baseball fans in general or Sox fans specifically.  That’s not the case here.  As with King’s other baseball stories – The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Blockade Billy – “A Face in the Crowd” is as accessible and readable to those not into the sport as it is to fanatics.  

It’s no mistake that the authors discuss mystery writer Harlan Coben here; in a way, “A Face in the Crowd” works as a stylistic pastiche of Coben’s work, which often involves faces and names from the past returning long after they’ve been forgotten.  Our main character’s name is clever, too: are we supposed to read “ever” or “never”?  In Dean Evers, we see echoes of Wilford James, the man who killed his wife in the recent novella “1922,” whose circumstances and conscience won’t let him live with the guilt.  There’s also a touch of “Fair Extension,” also from Full Dark, No Stars (this time how a lack of conscience can affect a person), and “The Dune” (an old man cursed with visions of the dead), but thematically, “A Face in the Crowd” most resembles King’s 1998 story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”  Its mantra, “Hell is repetition,” is very much at the forefront of this story’s chilling, downbeat conclusion.  

By this point, the delivery method is almost a non-issue; while people were intrigued when King released “Riding the Bullet” as an e-book in 2000, puzzled when he released The Plant later that year, and up in arms when “Ur” came out exclusively for the Amazon Kindle, the recent release of “Mile 81” on e-book was greeted with nothing but excitement for a new short story.  King and technology are finally harmonizing; while the recent Joe Hill collaborations “Throttle” and “In the Tall Grass” were originally only available in printed form, now they’ve come out as e-book “singles.”  The best thing about the ubiquity of King’s short stories on the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad is that the novelty of reading on screens is beginning to wear off, and we can get back to concentrating on the stories.  King has finally reached a point where he can deliver his work quickly and directly to the reader, and when it’s work as effective and fulfilling as “A Face in the Crowd,” that’s a cause to celebrate.  

Kevin Quigley is a novelist, critic, and webmaster of CharnelHouseSK.com. You can follow his mad exploits on Twitter @Kevidently.

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