The title novella of King’s first collection is its heart and soul: a powerful exploration of the flimsiness of political moral certainty compared to the strength of the unpredictable emotions that end up motivating individuals’ actions.
King sets his elegiac novella within a Maine family of idealists who, in the year 2000, have difficulty dealing with human imperfection. Resenting the well-meaning doctor to whom his mother Emma, an abortion clinic nurse, has become engaged, 15-year-old George hangs out with his recently widowed grandfather Henry, a retired labor organizer. Someone has vandalized the anti-Bush/pro-Gore sign Henry has put up in his yard; he suspects the ROTC cadet who was his newsboy until Henry had him fired for stealing the Sunday travel section. Now Henry plots paintball revenge. Meanwhile, George stops talking to his mother and rejects all friendly overtures from Dr. Vic. But when Emma threatens to leave Dr. Vic after Henry uncovers a donation the apolitical doctor made, under professional duress, to the Bush campaign, George begins to recognize that life isn’t as clear-cut as he thought. The novella pitches readers a barrage of emotional and philosophical curveballs as the characters—all likable, however flawed—are forced to discard their most prized assumptions. The four remaining stories, unfortunately, don’t live up to the novella. “Frozen Animals” is an ugly story about a dentist—somewhere in a northern wilderness—whose payment for treating a trapper’s wife is sex. “Wonders,” about a minor-league baseball team in the 1930s, shows the malleability of hate, while in “Snake,” the unhappy teenaged boy who’s a pale version of George never comes into real focus. “My Second Wife,” about the road trip a man takes after his wife leaves him, never pulls together, though it plays with interesting notions. The novella, though, like all great storytelling, has real strength.
Newcomer King (son of Stephen, not that it matters) is a talent to watch.