Stephen King’s short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” won a Stoker Award this weekend, and is available online for a free read at Atlantic Magazine’s website. (You can also listen to it for free on the Tales to Terrify podcast, along with other fantastic Stoker nominees.)
Reading a story like this, for free, online, and from a living legend, both makes me want to laugh and to revel in the moment. I want to laugh thinking about those poor judges who had to no doubt struggle to assess the competition fairly, knowing full well that this story came from Stephen King’s hand. I am no expert on Mr. King, nor have I even read most of his books, but how could you not recognize him from this story? Ignoring the fact that Maine is mentioned in the second paragraph, the characterization alone would be enough to convince you. I revel in the fact that I am able to converse with other readers so soon after a story’s release, (yeah, I understand this came out a year ago, but still, it’s not like we’re in some college English course talking about Willa Cather–this guy’s still alive and kickin’!). Do yourself a favor and go read this story, then come back and chat with me about it. It’s the type of story that makes you look differently at life, and for artists, reproduces the feeling of inspiration to mimic life.
Did you read it? My goal isn’t to give you some kind of summary, or lay out some kind of sales pitch any more than I have. Reading this before reading the story will only ruin the experience.
Okay, for those who have read it and came back, thank you. You likely are the kind that is also glad Mr. King is still around, because not many people can show characters in such depth–the kind that adds perspective you’ve never considered. If you have, then it’s only that much better. The experience he produced in this story, for me, is predicated on knowing what is going to happen to Brenda and her passengers. We read on because we wanted to see how someone could kill her best friend and all of their children. There are plenty of news stories out there about women killing themselves and their children, supposedly because life is just too hard to endure.
I don’t justify Brenda’s, or Jasmin’s actions, in this murder-suicide, but Mr. King sure helps me understand why they did. People wonder what makes people like me so messed up that I’d want to read horror stories like this–at least I assume they’re wondering that when I tell them what I read and write and they use silence and their eyes to tell me they’re not like that. This kind of story makes me glad to be blessed as I am. I’m not living paycheck to paycheck, abandoned by my lover with too many kids and no way to provide. Then, to win a measly $2,700… Brenda aptly assesses that gift as nothing but a tease.
Brenda rents a van and packs her and her best friends’ families in to go after fools gold of parents that likely won’t give them a dime. I’m still struck by how miserable such a state of mind must be. Mr. King uses a powerful metaphor of describing Brenda’s vision as being clouded by a greyness. This grey keeps her from rejoicing in the lives in the back seat, or even this respite from the normal doldrums to go on a road trip with a friend. Unless you’re some kind of Glee! robot, I’m sure you notice that grey as well. It’s the same kind of perspective that keeps me from appreciating my job putting food on the table when I am dreaming of something better.
The question Mr. King seems to ask is how much of your perspective will you give over to the grey, especially in light of how easily Brenda and Jasmine made giving it their all.
Brenda goes from not drinking and driving because her license is all she has left, to giving in to the temptation of instant gratification. She starts off telling the grey that she can’t get a job without her license, but then the grey takes over, telling her she can’t get a job with it anyway because of her kids. Plus, there’s no cops around, and “if she did lose her ticket, how much would she really be out?”
Her friend, who she hoped would cheer her up with a joke, is crying. She’s not going to help make the grey go away, in fact, when Brenda says “The world is grey,” Jasmine responds, “That’s right. Now you’re getting with the program.” This makes me think a little about the people I surround myself with, but more so about the way I influence the lives around me. Every time I complain I am telling people to get with the program, this world is grey. Jasmine didn’t know how powerful those words would be towards their deaths, she was just glad to have someone to share her misery.
I won’t go on too much more about these women, but I have to mention the hopelessness of Brenda at the end of her life, looking at her kids and assuming their misery to come. There’s no hope for change. She assumes they will live just like her, the girls losing their virginity with game shows on TV in the background, smoking dope and eating cheap ice cream. She pities Rosellen for having something wrong with her, how she’ll need special ed classes and will still be drooling in the eighth grade. This pricks my heart, similar to the way parents chose abortion, how parents make decisions on their kids lives while they’re too helpless to stop them. I want to grab Brenda, shake her, and shout that these kids can still find happiness. To tell her not to throw their lives away just because hers seems hopeless. But no, it’s too late, she’s already consigned them to mass producing a fools’ army, and she’s going to be the one who puts an end to it before it gets started–probably because she’s too embarrassed to have anyone blame her for their foolishness.
Then we have the elderly poets. As I write, I’m contemplating how they juxtapose against Brenda and Jasmine. Paul and Pauline are on their way to a poetry festival, spending their disrespectful honorarium money on a Caddy and some picnic supplies before they have to eat the crap served at their event. They can’t even go have sex behind the rest area because it won’t be satisfying and the old-person’s food they just eat won’t help. (Sorry, I don’t remember offhand what it was, but at the time I got a strong sense of smell like potato salad that I’d rather starve than eat, and imagine that only old people with no taste buds eat… no offense, just teasing if you like it.)
So you got these two old poets, and they read an article in the paper about old Herman Wouk publishing a book in his nineties. Mr. King uses this fact, along with Mr. Wouk’s quote that “the body weakens, but the words never do,” to inspire in an odd way that life can still be beautiful even when it’s being taken away.
Brenda found her beauty at the cockpit of her rented van, going as fast as she could, to go out with style before the rusted hubcap of life could reemerge and make her rust away in time.
Pauline also found her beauty in how spectacular life can be in a moment–even if it is tragic. As the van crashes, she notices the shards sparkling in the sunlight, and “thinks—blasphemously—beautiful.”
While both parties required death to observe this spectacular event, the difference between the two is that Brenda experiences hers at the cost of others, and Paul and Pauline at the cost of their selves. Paul tells Pauline not to look, to call 911, while he strips off his clothes to cover the young bodies from being shamed in death. I find it interesting that Paul tries so hard to keep others from looking, while Pauline can’t help but admire the impact such images make.
The fact that someone has to ask her “What happened?” and how it upsets her shows just how profound a statement this event makes. That I can laugh at the ending of such a story is quite a feat. Hopefully I can walk away a better person, one who is willing not to rust away. Instead, I want to be like Paul and Pauline, respecting people’s lives and reflecting on their beauty and tragedy when taken away prematurely.