Thursday, October 28, 2010
Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger by Stephen King
"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."
There's really not much more you need to know about this story except what's right up there. That's the essence of the whole thing - a chase. A man in black, who has obviously done something terrible, and a gunslinger, who is obviously going to set things right.
If, by "set right," you mean "kill a whole lot of people," then you're pretty much on target.
This is the beginning of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, a story told in seven volumes that manages to be the lynchpin for all the worlds that he has created. It's a story that was 22 years in the writing, and almost never got finished. It's an epic story, all about the endless quest for the Dark Tower, the center of all reality, the axle upon which the wheels of creation move.
Roland, the gunslinger, is hunting for this tower. He wants it more than anything in the world. He has lost everything in pursuit of this tower - his friends, his family, his world - and yet he pressed on. The man in black has information for him, can set his path towards his goal. If only Roland can catch him.
On his way to the man in black, Roland finds a small town taken over by a mad preacher woman, a sympathetic hermit, and a boy who doesn't look like he's terribly local to this world. All of them help point the way to the man in black, and none of them make it to the end with Roland. Even he is unprepared for the terrifying reality that awaits him when he and the man in black finally have their palaver....
There truly is something magical about this book. Even if there were no other Dark Tower books, it would stand out as a good story, well told. Part of this is its deceptive simplicity - moving from point A to point B, with only a few flashbacks to fill in the backstory. Well, quite a lot of flashbacks, actually, seeing as how King did set this story in a featureless desert with a singular protagonist, and there's only so much you can work with without dipping into the well of the past from time to time.
The glimpses of Roland's past that we get to see are tantalizing - they tell of a rich and cultured world that is nonetheless hard and merciless. The gunslingers are all that stand between civilization and chaos, and there are precious few of them left. Roland and his friends know they may be the last of their kind, but that doesn't deter them from pursuing their guns and growing up to honor their fathers.
The fact that we know from the beginning that they all fail just makes it all the more poignant to watch them try.
It's hard to talk about this book without trying to talk about the rest of the series, and it's even harder to convey the feeling of reading it when the series was still ongoing. My father, a huge Stephen King fan, had these books when I was a kid, and I eventually got into them, and was - like so many others - immeasurably frustrated by the pace at which King was writing them. I finished this book, which does not necessarily have a happy - or easy-to-understand - ending, and I wanted more. I wanted to know what Roland was going to do now that he'd had his palaver with the man in black, and I wanted to know if he would ever find the Dark Tower. Whom would he enlist in his quest, as the oracle had suggested? Whom else would he sacrifice, as he did young Jake?
Speaking of which, the relationship between Roland and Jake is an interesting one, especially as I got older and re-read it. When I first read the book, I was probably around Jake's age - eleven years old . Reading Jake's story of how he came to Roland's world was horrifying enough, but to see how their relationship would eventually end was even worse. The idea that there might be something more important to, say, my parents  than I was - well, that was horrifying. To think that a purpose might exist for which they would let me fall to my death.... That's not the kind of thing an eleven year-old boy wants to think about.
From the point of view of an older person, a grown man, I found something uncomfortable about their relationship. The bond that formed between man and boy was instant, and intense, and having grown up in a culture where a strange man being that friendly to a young boy would be automatically colored with the taint of pedophilia, well, I had to work a little harder to stay in Roland's head. The fact that I know that wasn't where King was going with the relationship helps a little, but every reader brings his or her hang-ups along when they read and some of mine are a little more persistent than others. I'm sure any psychologist who needs to put a down payment on a yacht would be happy to help me work on it.
All in all, it's an excellent beginning. What follows is a massive tale, a great quest that spans time and space and reality, culminating in Roland's final understanding of who he is and why he exists. Not all of it is as good as this book, but it's still worth reading, I say ya true.
So put on your good boots, don't forget your hat and horn and donkey. It's a long trip to the end....
"This is not the beginning but the beginning's end. You'd do well to remember that... but you never do."
- The Man in Black
 This is another example of the Eleven Year-Old Boy Rule: if you have a major character in your book who is not an adult, chances are that it will be an eleven year-old boy. King is a master of this.
 Because if Roland isn't a father-substitute then I don't know who is.
The Gunslinger on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
The Gunslinger on Amazon.com