Stephen King, ‘Mr. Mercedes’, and Our Love of Literary Junk Food

[25 June 2014]

By Dan Barrett

Here’s how I began to suspect that Mr. Mercedes is not an enduring work of literature: Though I enjoyed it, I realized I would have very little to say about it. For a while, I couldn’t put it down. But now that I’ve eaten the last bite, the whole meal is gone from my thoughts. I finished it just a few days ago, and yet, earlier today, I had to look up the names of the two main characters, because I’d already forgotten them.

Stephen King has taken a major role in a current debate about our nation’s literary culture. Here’s the debate. Some highbrow critics, such as James Wood, feel that our new, buzz-generating, “literary” novels are infantilizing us. The reading public apparently chooses to spend most of its time on stories for children—such as the Harry Potter books and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Such books are winning the kind of attention that is normally reserved for more serious fare.

Indeed, Harry Potter’s adventures consume several prominent pages of reflection in The New York Times. The Goldfinch nabs the Pulitzer Prize. Wood, Francine Prose, and some others sees this trend as a distressing sign that we English-speaking folk may be becoming dumber and dumber.

On the opposing team, there’s King, Michiko Kakutani, and Lev Grossman, among others. They believe that The Goldfinch and the Harry Potter tales have literary merit; they argue that these books should be taken seriously by adults. King has written breathlessly about J.K. Rowling.

He also has a high opinion of his own work, which has taken hits from the Wood/Prose camp—notably, from the august scholar Harold Bloom, who caused a furor when King won a significant literary honor a few years ago. Bloom thought King didn’t deserve the prize. King thinks Bloom, Wood, Prose, et al. need to lighten up. When he won his big award, he had the temerity to suggest that some critics’ darlings could learn from a careful study of his own sprawling novels.

I’m sympathetic to King. I really devoured the two King novels I’ve read—Mr. Mercedes and Joyland. But King’s work doesn’t haunt or change me; it doesn’t have the lasting effect on me that say, Alice McDermott‘s quietly brilliant novels have. McDermott writes literature; she writes books that make you want to analyze, argue, and re-read. King simply writes rippin’ good yarns.

Why can’t a reader enjoy both King and McDermott? Fancy Michelin critics have been known to go wild for Shake Shack. Isn’t it possible to appreciate both cheeseburgers and filet mignon?

I realize I haven’t said much about King’s new novel. Well, hold on.

As I mentioned, I’ve read just two of King’s books, I feel as if King’s stories were a part of my DNA. How could they not be? This guy has written over 60 books, and many of them have been wildly successful. I can recall the times my mother described her first apartment building—its laundry room, where she scared herself witless while awaiting the end of the wash cycle and reading Salem’s Lot.

The King/Kathy Bates collaborations—Dolores Claiborne and Misery—fascinated me when I was a kid. Stand by Me—with its creepy leeches, and its focus on the doomed, charismatic River Phoenix, that, too, came from the mind of Stephen King. There’s also It, and Carrie, and The Shining... The list goes on.

My mother had a copy of Gerald’s Game, which seemed to concern a power struggle within an especially dysfunctional relationship, and its cover alone made me frightened and curious. (Gerald’s Game apparently doesn’t work very well. A recent ranking of all of King’s books placed Gerald’s Game pretty close to the bottom.)

Unlike It, Carrie, and many other King newsmakers, the new novel, Mr. Mercedes has limited room for the supernatural. This said, the supernatural makes at least one appearance, when King alludes to his own early-career hit about “the killer alien clown”. The passage is a gratuitous expression of authorial self-regard.

Instead of levitating girls and homicidal child-twin-ghosts, Mr. Mercedes gives us a retired detective and an angry young man. The detective, Bill, must stop the man, Brady, before he, Brady, kills several strangers at a boy-band concert. Brady has struck three times before. He has mowed down several job-seekers with an elderly lady’s Mercedes. He has persuaded that same elderly lady to kill herself. And he has done something awful to his brother, something that remains mysterious until a disturbing flashback late in the novel.

King seems to model the killer on Norman Bates, and on the young man responsible for the Newtown massacre, Adam Lanza. Brady has a sexual relationship with his alcoholic mother, with whom he shares a house. He’s not a serial killer, as one might thing. Rather, he’s a domestic terrorist, interested in murdering several people within a few seconds. For this reason, you could also argue that he shares genes (figuratively) with Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and with James Holmes, the man who opened fire on a crowd of moviegoers in the recent past.

At times, King seems to have compassion for Brady. But this isn’t consistent. The novel ends with a peculiarly distasteful joke about the abuse Brady suffered at the hands of his mother. How are we supposed to react to this? “Hardy har had! Those mass murderers and their fucked-up families! What a barrel of laughs!”

To combat Brady, Bill, the detective, summons some unlikely heroes. Bill and his helpers work to uncover Brady’s identity, and much self-worth-discovery/bond-formation occurs along the way. There are clich├ęs; there are surprises. King shows real interest in his characters, at least part of the time. This interest distinguishes his work from some other bestsellers.

So, although I’ve had a few harsh things to say about King’s writing and his public persona, I’ll reiterate here that Mr. Mercedes held my interest throughout 400-plus pages. I liked it, but alas, I’ve already forgotten large swaths of it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/183105-mr.-mercedes-by-stephen-king/