Blaze by Richard Bachman

The not-quite-new novel by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King), opens with a foreword in which the author explains his decision to finally publish a book he wrote more than 30 years ago. He had kept the book in a box reserved for finished manuscripts that just weren’t good enough.

“This is an old novel, but I believe I was wrong in my initial assessment that it was a bad novel,” King writes, and if the chatty, personal, unusually honest introduction is better than the book it precedes, the writer has absolutely nothing to apologize for this time. (The same cannot be said for his last two novels, Cell and Lisey’s Story).

Blaze was written in 1973, at the end of a furiously productive period that begat the Bachman books Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork and The Running Man. The protagonist is Clayton Blaisdell Jr., a lonely, brain-damaged outcast blessed (or perhaps cursed) with unusual physical strength. His life has been a series of heartbreaking calamities.

Standing 6 foot 7 and weighing almost 300 pounds, Clayton is a man-child left “soft in the head” after being twice thrown down a flight of stairs as a child by his abusive father. Bounced around foster homes and institutions for much of his childhood, Clayton eventually finds himself running with George, a know-it-all criminal who becomes his constant companion and adviser, who continues to counsel Clayton from beyond the grave.

Alternating between Clayton’s past and the present, in which Clayton has kidnapped the infant son of wealthy parents and is holding him for ransom, Blaze is a suspenseful crime yarn as well as a moving, sympathetic portrait of a man yearning to find a place in a world that seems to have callously rejected him.

Leaner and much more focused than King’s recent novels and far more sentimental than the typical ice-cold Bachman style, Blaze amounts to little more than a heartfelt homage to John Steinbeck, which may explain the author’s semi-apologetic tone in deciding to publish it. (He is also donating his royalties from the book to The Haven Foundation, a charity for down-on-their-luck artists).

But Blaze is also an engaging showcase for one of King’s greatest gifts: His seemingly effortless ability to craft characters who leave an indelible mark, regardless of the somewhat contrived plots in which they happen to be stranded. Like The Dead Zone‘s Johnny Smith or the eponymous heroine of Carrie, it’s a safe bet you’ll find yourself thinking back on the hulking Clayton Blaisdell Jr. with bittersweet sympathy.