The Bill Hodges Trilogy, Book 2
Scribner • 2015 • 434 pages
A Novel Critique
When Stephen King announced From a Buick 8, there was some concern that the man was starting to repeat himself. After all, King had already written a novel about a spooky car: Christine had overcome some middling early reviews to become one of King’s touchstone classics. When Buick 8was finally released in 2002, the initial feats were set to rest: while both novels did, indeed, have a car (of sorts) as a catalyst for horror, the books couldn’t be more dissimilar. The car in Buick 8 wasn’t even properly a car so much as a portal to another world, while Christine herself was “simply” haunted. It would be like saying The Dead Zone and Desperation were the same because a central character had visions.
Now we come to Finders Keepers, whose early reviews seem intent on comparing the novel to Misery, due to a featured character’s literary obsession. Once again, the books bear nothing but the most fleeting resemblance to one another, and that’s by King’s design. For a good portion of his career, King has followed his own obsession, striving through his novels to understand the symbiotic triptych of writers, writing, and readers. Misery, in 1987, was his first major thesis on the subject, exploring the hold fiction has over both its creators and audiences. 1989’s The Dark Half continued the thread, delving deeper into the internal lives of writers who let their creations overwhelm their real lives. King riffed on this in 1990’s “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” looking more deeply into the nature of writing itself. In 1998, King discovered new ways to write about writers and writing with Bag of Bones, a book about a novelist who can’t write, and in 2006, King explored the way writer’s private lives affect those who love them in Lisey’s Story.
This timeline is important, because Finders Keepers follows Lisey’s Story far more directly than Misery. One of the major thrusts of Lisey’s is the subject of authors’ legacies, especially in the work they leave behind when they die, and what happens when the wrong person believes he has a right to that material. We meet Morris Bellamy on the first page of Finders Keepers, and he is absolutely the wrong person. We also meet the subject of his obsession, literary novelist John Rothstein (a cross between John Updike and J.D. Salinger) ... although that’s not quite true. Bellamy’s main obsession is with Rothstein’s creation, a character named Jimmy Gold whom Rothstein followed for a trilogy of novels before turning reclusive. In Bellamy’s opinion, Rothstein needs to be killed for what he’s done Jimmy Gold – forcing him to “sell out” in the final book of the trilogy – and also to divulge whatever writing he’s been working on since his fade from public view.
In one respect, Bellamy is right about Rothstein’s writing: the man has been filling notebook after notebook of handwritten pages of new writing. What he’s not right about becomes the major theme of the novel: the idea that fictional people are more important than real people Ö even the ones who create them. Late in the novel, a character muses that Bellamy “took the life of a great writer, and why? Because Rothstein dared to follow a character who went in a direction [Bellamy] didn’t like ... He did it out of his own core belief: that the writing was somehow more important than the writer.”
Bellamy murders Rothstein in the novel’s first few pages, and buries a trunk stuffed with the man’s post-publication work (not to mention about $20,000 in cash) before going to jail for decades for an unrelated crime. The trunk remains undisturbed for most of that time ... until Peter Saubers, a young kid with an increasingly difficult home life, finds the trunk, and decides to use it to change his life.
There’s something of Todd Bowden, King’s All-American kid from “Apt Pupil,” in Pete Saubers, and there’s a touch of that novella’s unsettling parasitic relationship between Bowden and aging Nazi Kurt Dussander in the shared Rothstein obsession (and knowledge of the trunk) between Saubers and Bellamy. But Saubers is a genuinely good kid – nearly all of his actions are altruistic ones – and neither Bellamy nor Saubers is aware of the other until the last third of the novel. These reasons help King invert “Apt Pupil”’s narrative, and to explore the various natures of fandom – something King has never really attempted before. Most of King’s obsessive characters are all or nothing, from Annie Wilkes to Zach McCool, from Todd Bowden to Arnie Cunningham. Morris Bellamy is another in that line, but Pete Saubers offers a different take on literary obsession – a character with a singular interest that doesn’t turn monomaniacal, whose Great Interest doesn’t stop him from discovering other interests or prioritizing the people in his life.
The fact that Finders Keepers is a (mostly) real-world crime thriller also serves to set this novel apart from King’s other novels about writers and writing. Most of those earlier novels are horror (including Misery, despite its lack of a supernatural threat), and Lisey’s is magic realism. Finders Keepers, which functions as a sequel to 2014’s Mr. Mercedes is firmly rooted in modern crime thriller rules and tropes. Bill Hodges, who narrowly avoided suicide in Mercedes, arrives about 150 pages in, along with his girl Holly, making them secondary characters in their own trilogy. Also arriving late to the party is Jerome Robinson, Hodges’ brilliant teen sidekick, whose stereotypical black affectations are mostly, thankfully, absent this time around. (Much was made about Jerome’s occasional shuck-and-jive accent in Mr. Mercedes, baffling some readers who wondered why King seemed deliberately racist. Whether King was right to incorporate this aspect of Jerome’s character is up to the reader, but its appearance makes sense if given context. It’s nothing more than homage to crime writers who have used this technique before, from T.J. in Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels to Hawk in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books, both smart African-American characters who can turn on and off their perception of how white characters see them at will.)
Because the book is playing by crime novel rules rather than by horror novel rules means that the devastations that come near the end of the book are different than they would be otherwise. Bellamy’s release from prison and subsequent discovery that his trunk is empty sets in motion a cat and mouse game in the final third of the book that moves so urgently that the actual words get in the way of the reading. The appearance of a box marked KITCHEN SUPPLIES functions in a similar way to that of an important file folder in Under the Dome, but here the near-misses involved feel exciting and wicked rather than frustrating, propelling the narrative. One almost expects a pile of bodies or wreckage on a grand scale by the end of a King novel, but by respecting his novel’s genre, King manages to subvert those expectations. The losses in Finders Keepers are more idiosyncratic and personal, and devastating in their own right. Here, King is able to have it both ways, arguing that real people are more important than fake people Ö but that fake people are pretty important, too.
Many middle books in trilogies fall victim to the twin traps of not feeling as vital as the first book and seeming to pad time until the third. Finders Keepers avoids these pitfalls easily by treating itself as a self-contained novel with important – but fairly minimal – connections to the main characters in Mr. Mercedes. Additionally, Finders Keepers feels oddly more complete; without having to contend with a host of origin stories and by featuring a main story with a proper finale, there’s much here that just feels more satisfying. That said, we end with a similar epilogue to that of Mr. Mercedes, with former psychopath Brady Hartsfield catatonic in a hospital room. Or is he? King teases this question in Bill Hodges’ framing story throughout Finders Keepers, and also hints toward supernatural elements. In the past, King has introduced the supernatural in novels that are otherwise not: Cujo, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, among others. Often, this feels like an intrusion, but not so here: because Hodges’ interactions with Brady Hartsfield function as a subplot rather than intricately connected to the main storyline, we can accept them as part of a whole other story. If the title of the final book in the series, The Suicide Prince, is any indication, that other story is going to be pretty terrifying.
Mr. Mercedes was a very good book, underscoring once again that Stephen King is capable of trying on other genres than horror and working well inside them. Finders Keepers goes a bit beyond that, offering an even more riveting story that continues the themes he’s been exploring since his early career, now in a whole new context. If Mercedes was King’s first true suspense novel, here we find King perfecting his take on the form.