Stephen King's collection of five stories about '60s kids reads like a novel. The best is "Low Men in Yellow Coats," about Bobby Garfield of Harwich, Connecticut, who craves a Schwinn for his 11th birthday. But his widowed mom is impoverished, and so bitter that she barely loves him. King is as good as Spielberg or Steven Millhauser at depicting an enchanted kid's-eye view of the world, and his Harwich is realistically luminous to the tiniest detail: kids bashing caps with a smoke-blackened rock, a car grille "like the sneery mouth of a chrome catfish," a Wild Mouse carnival ride that makes kids "simultaneously sure they were going to live forever and die immediately."
Bobby's mom takes in a lodger, Ted Brautigan, who turns the boy on to great books like Lord of the Flies. Unfortunately, Ted is being hunted by yellow-jacketed men--monsters from King's Dark Tower novels who take over the shady part of town. They close in on Ted and Bobby, just as a gang of older kids menace Bobby and his girlfriend, Carol. This pointedly echoes the theme of Lord of the Flies (the one book King says he wishes he'd written): war is the human condition. Ted's mind-reading powers rub off a bit on Bobby, granting nightmare glimpses of his mom's assault by her rich, vile, jaunty boss. King packs plenty into 250 pages, using the same trick Bobby discerns in the film Village of the Damned: "The people seemed like real people, which made the make-believe parts scarier."
Vietnam is the otherworldly horror that haunts the remaining four stories. In the title tale, set in 1966, University of Maine college kids play the card game Hearts so obsessively they risk flunking out and getting drafted. The kids discover sex, rock, and politics, become war heroes and victims, and spend the '80s and '90s shell-shocked by change. The characters and stories are crisscrossed with connections that sometimes click and sometimes clunk. The most intense Hearts player, Ronnie Malenfant ("evil infant"), perpetrates a My Lai-like atrocity; a nice Harwich girl becomes a radical bomber. King's metaphor for lost '60s innocence is inspired by Donovan's "sweet and stupid" song about the sunken continent, and his stories hail the vanished Atlantis of his youth with deep sweetness and melancholy intelligence. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
By "Atlantis," King means the 1960s, that otherworldly decade that, like the fabled continent, has sunk into myth. By "hearts," he means not just the seat of love but the card game, which figures prominently in the second of the five scarcely linked narratives in this full-bodied but disjointed omnibus, King's third (after Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight). The stories proceed chronologically, from 1960 to 1999. The first, the novel-length "Low Men in Yellow Coats," is the most traditionally King: an alienated youth, Bobby Garfield, is befriended by a new neighbor, the elderly Ted Brautigan, who introduces him to literature and turns out to be on the run from villainous creatures from another time/dimension. A potent coming-of-age tale, the story connects to King's Dark Tower saga. The novella-length title entry, set in 1966 and distinguished by a bevy of finely etched characters, concerns a college dorm whose inhabitants grow dangerously addicted to hearts. The last three pieces are short stories. "Blind Willie," set in 1983, details the penance paid by a Vietnam vet for a wartime sin, as does "Why We're in Vietnam." The concluding tale, "Heavenly Shades of Night Falling," revives Bobby and provides closure. Sometimes the stories feel like experiments, even exercises, and they can wear their craft on their sleevesAin the way the game of hearts symbolizes the quagmire of Vietnam, for instance, or in how each narrative employs a different prose style, from the loose-limbed third-person of "Low Men" to the tighter first-person of "Hearts," and so on. With about ten million published words and counting, King probably can write a seductive story in his sleep and none of these artful tales are less; but only the title story rivals his best work and, overall, the volume has a patchy feel, and exudes a bittersweet obsession with the past that will please the author's fellow babyboomersAKing nails the '60s and its legacyAbut may make others grind their teeth.
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