Book Review, Contemporary, Crime Novel, Fiction, Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King was one of my most anticipated releases of 2018, and one of only two books that I actually pre-ordered this year. I’ve always been a King fan, but something about the description and his development over the last couple of decades heightened my intrigue even further.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of him lately and trying to trace his themes across novels and genres. There are some common threads, and really three distinct avenues that I’ve been able to tack down, thus far: first, his interest in the psychological terror of the unknown/supernatural; second, his interest in morality and the battle of good versus evil; and finally, his interest in the ethics of humanity and the truth(s) of human nature. That said, it seems like The Outsider is in many ways a masterwork that brings together King’s three primary themes and genres, at last. While reading it, I sensed a very delicate and compelling balance between the supernatural horrors of Itand The Shining, with the moral questions embedded in pieces like The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption, and the ethical concerns of his realistic, true crime fiction like “The Body” and Joyland. It is all here, working together almost seamlessly to deliver what is certainly one of King’s best works to date.

The story itself centers around a man named Terry Maitland, a popular man in his small town; he works as an English teacher and coaches the Little League baseball team, currently on a winning streak. He is well-liked, trusted, and respected in the community, almost without question. And then the unthinkable happens. A young boy, one of Maitland’s baseball players, is found dead—indeed, far worse than dead—in a park, and all evidence points to Maitland as the perpetrator. Not only does the town turn on him, and with seemingly every good reason to do so, but slowly, more sinister forces begin to enter the picture as well. At first, the evil unleashed in this town seems to be the result of human nature; there is a mob mentality that develops when a crime so evil, so unspeakable is apparently perpetrated by one of the town’s most unimpeachable residents. The residents find a kind of joy, a catharsis, in bringing as much pain to bear as they possibly can against Maitland and his wife. But not all is as it seems.

After more preventable tragedies, and a lot of early assumptions, there is another murder. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the first crime, but how could this be? Maitland had an alibi for the first murder, a nearly rock-solid one. And he was already under arrest when the next happened. What could be going on in this little town? King spins an elaborate web that spans the country and, like a bizarre supernatural crime novel, the reader is introduced to new characters, new locations, and histories that play more and more significant roles in the unfolding drama and that sometimes lead in one direction, and then another, often falsely. The end might surprise some readers, while others might come to it with met expectations. I, for one, was right about something the entire time, but also completely fooled exactly twice. That made for a fun ride!

Personally, while I was disappointed in a major decision Stephen King makes in the end, and dissatisfied overall with the denouement, I still think this is one of King’s best works because it does bring together all of his best practices and the very reasons why we keep returning to King’s works. King’s characterization is also more on point and balanced in this work than in any others I can think of at the moment. He always has much to say about the human psyche and the ways in which we tend to disappoint one another when we need each other most. Even when the thrills and terrors of supernatural horrors are layered on the surface, creeping us out and giving us the thrills of the genre, it is always the very humandecisions beneath that horror which results in the actual intrigue and terror at the heart of his narratives.

In this case, the situation is somewhat reversed. The crimes committed seem disturbingly possible, and they are described in gruesome, horrifying detail. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the realistic and all-too-human nature at the surface of the crimes. For that reason, I absolutely loved the first two-thirds of the book and think, had King kept going with the direction the book seems to be taking through that part of the book, it would have ended up being my new favorite. That said, what is clear is that The Outsider is undeniably Stephen King, and in fact, it is Stephen King at his very best.

Are you a Stephen King fan who has read this latest novel? If so, what did you think?

My thoughts on other Stephen King works can be found here.

Alissa Nutting, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Crime Novel, Fiction, Gender Roles, Narcissism, Pedophilia, Psychology, Psychology of Sex, Sex Addiction, Sexual Predator, Sexuality, Sociopaths

Review: Tampa by Alyssa Nutting

17292511Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 48

Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting.  It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students.  In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price.  While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict.  She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys.  Yes, you read that right.  She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.

Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests.  Why all the drama?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning:  Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen.  Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers.  Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.

Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book.  After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent.  There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty.  So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story.  What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way.  Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father.  Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death.  Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.

At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach.  The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic.  It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.”  But, of course, that is entirely the point.  Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way.  Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification.  Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile.  Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste?  Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).

Overall, I was satisfied with the book.  Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter.  I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn.  Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).

Cameron-Diazthe-sexy-teacher-1It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography.  After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts.  But, pornography?  No.  The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm.  That is not the purpose of this book.  Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo.  But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all.  The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators.  How do we imagine pedophiles, after all?  Creepy middle-aged white men?  But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys?  Or young girls?

My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point.  That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man.  Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her.  It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions.  How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”

The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).

Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Crime Novel, Fiction, Murder Mystery, Mystery, Stephen King, Supernatural

Review: Joyland by Stephen King



Joyland by Stephen King

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 43

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Stephen King’s Joyland is the latest in his massive repertoire of what I will hereafter describe as “really cool reading stuff.”  In this supernatural mystery crime thriller (yep, it is all of that), young Devin Jones, fresh out of his first year of college, heads down the eastern U.S. coastline to take a summer job at an old-fashioned amusement park called, you guessed it, Joyland.  While trying to get over “that” girl, the devastatingly beautiful tease who became his first love and who broke his heart for the first time, Devin soon finds himself involved in the very peculiar life of a dying boy, his bombshell mother, and a decades old murder that all of them must somehow solve together, or else.  What starts off as a curiosity – a folk legend and a hobby- for Devin and his Joyland friends, soon turns into a terrifying nightmare which will change Devin’s life forever.

3 – Characters well-developed.

One of the areas where I tend to find King lacking is in his character development.  His stories and their connection with the reader are always at the forefront, so his characters seem to be there only as means to an end.  What King wants for his reader is self-immersion – the stories should be happening to you.  He does manage to accomplish this, better than most, but, still, characters are one of my favorite (and, in my opinion, one of the most important) aspects of any good novel, so I do look for their strengths, weaknesses, growth, etc.  Joyland is a short novel, without much room for growth, but King does allow his main character, Devin, to experience certain major life events and to learn from them. Most of the minor characters (which includes everyone except Devin) are relatively flat throughout, except for Annie.  Her story, along with that of her sick son, Mike, are the very touching secondary support that the primary story needs to make this book just complicated enough – just emotional enough- to touch the reader on a deeper level. Devin’s growth coincides with his relationship with these two, and Annie’s growth, too, happens only because Devin comes into their life.  The other friends, park workers, and even the primary antagonist are sidelined for the majority of the story but, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

4 – Excellent prose/style, enhancing the story.

Stephen King obviously knows how to write a story – his prolific body of work, permanent best-seller status, and massive personal wealth (not to mention all those page-to-screen adaptations) can attest to this.  Typically, though, something about King’s writing will irk me.  I sometimes find it a little bit too pedantic, or a little bit too graphic, or a little bit trying-to-hard-to-be-shocking.  This time, though, King seems to be deeply in love with his story, and his writing reflects that.  The book is a page-turner, not because it is an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller or horror novel, like so many of his others.  Yes, you do want to find out what happens next, but it is because you are engrossed with Devin’s life.  Sure, you realize there are things happening beneath the surface – secrets that are bound to be revealed, soon. But, also, you just want to be a part of Devin’s life.  You are happy for him when he finds enjoyment in perhaps the most un-enjoyable job imaginable.  You are thrilled when his relationship with Annie starts to progress, and when you learn more about Mike.  King’s dialogue is believable, Devin’s awkwardness is believable, and the descriptions of people, places, etc. are interesting enough to engage the reader and drive the plot forward.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Joyland is not as scary, nor as suspenseful, nor as gory, nor as crude as I expected it to be.  I mean, this is King, after all.  Where is the horror?  Where are the blatantly graphic sexual episodes?  I realize that I always anticipate something from King, and yet he always manages to surprise me.  This has happened with every King book I’ve read, from Christine to Gunslinger, from Carrie to “The Body.”  Although King sometimes uses the fantastical, the terrifying, and the unbelievable to get his point across, his stories are, at heart, very much about human nature and the human experience. Joyland is no exception; in fact, it might just be King at the peak of his storytelling ability.  This book left me with a sense of nostalgia that I haven’t felt since seeing the Spielberg film Super 8 just a few years ago.  It reminds one of “the good old days” – where innocence and experience begin to meet, where love has crushed us, but the future still shines bright; where mystery entices us and, despite our better judgment, we dive for it only to find ourselves in over our heads.  The book was, really, a delight.  It is sad, but hopeful; fantastic, but real; and current, but elegiac.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Crime Thriller, Mystery, Supernatural, Coming-of-Age.

Notable Quotes:

“Age looked at youth, and youth’s applause first weakened, then died.”

“The mind defends itself as long as it can.”

“Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go.”

“Some people hide their real faces. Sometimes you can tell when they’re wearing masks, but not always.”

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping toward you, you hold on to what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.”