From a Buick 8
Scribner • 2002 • 416 pages
A Novel Critique
In the early 2000s, Stephen King began experimenting with uncertain endings in more depth and with more frequency than ever before. While books like Pet Sematary, 'Salem's Lot, The Waste Lands, and Christine featured cliffhanger finales, these were mostly done for effect rather than ambiguity. Starting with From a Buick 8 and continuing through The Dark Tower, The Colorado Kid, and Cell, King is fascinated by the way books generally offer a sense of completion, in ways that real life rarely does. With From a Buick 8 on, King seems far more interested in the nature of mystery than closure, and how questions without answers affect his characters.
The eponymous Buick had been left behind at a gas station by an unidentified man in black, who had brought it in to get refueled. The car is soon impounded by Troop D, a state police barracks in rural Western Pennsylvania. Almost at once, the members of Troop D discover that, while the vehicle resembles a 1954 Buick Roadmaster, it is in no sense an ordinary car. The steering wheel doesn't move, the dashboard instruments are frozen replicas, and the odometer reads all zeroes. Even more interestingly, the Buick repels dirt and foreign matter; attempts to wedge a pebble between the tire treads are all failures. One character states, "That car - that purported car - would never drive."
The real horror of From a Buick 8 isn't necessarily the car itself, but what the car does. Occasionally, it will give off what Troop D dubs lightquakes, flashes of purple light that that sometimes result in unsettling plants or animals appearing in the car's vicinity (explaining the book's title - From a Buick 8 - beyond the allusion to Bob Dylan's song "From a Buick 6".) It is suggested that the Buick is a portal between worlds similar to the doors throughout the Dark Tower saga bringing matter from that world into this - or, in at least two cases cases, bringing people from this world into that. What "comes through" into our world is no ordinary organic matter; they are instead misshapen, incomprehensible things, bringing to mind H.P. Lovecraft's cosmic horrors. These have been a staple of King since his earliest work. The Night Shift short story "Jerusalem's Lot" and Nightmares & Dreamcapes' "Crouch End" referenced Lovecraft, as would the terrific "N.," appearing in the later Just After Sunset. The novels It and The Plant also touched on Lovecraftian themes, but in From a Buick 8, King begins to fully explore Lovecraft's concepts of "cosmicism," exploring the ideas that humanity is insignificant and the universe is incomprehensible. King accomplishes these themes not only through the supernatural/cosmic story at the center of the novel, but also in the struggle of the characters for answers that remain elusive.
Most in need of concrete answers are the characters Curtis and Ned Wilcox, father and son. Curtis dies in a senseless accident, hit in the road by the gas station attendant who, years earlier, had discovered the Buick. The theme of car accidents and their aftereffects continues to be a crucial ongoing motif in King's work. Though From a Buick 8 was written before Stephen King's own near-fatal accident, it was published after, fitting into the ongoing thread featuring in King's fiction and nonfiction. On Writing, Dreamcatcher, "Riding the Bullet" in Everything's Eventual, and the final two novels in the Dark Tower series tackle the implications of car accidents (Duma Key furthers this theme, using a different sort of accident as its jumping-off point). Here, Ned's desire to tie the Buick to the circumstances of his father's death echoes similar attempts to make sense of senselessness in these other books. Unfortunately, the adage applies: correlation does not imply causation. While the properties of the Buick (and the things that emerge from it) could have something to do with Curtis Wilcox's death, chances are just as likely that the accident that killed him was simply that - an accident.
The bond - sometimes nurturing, sometimes damaging - between fathers and sons has long fascinated King. Healthy biological father/son relationships are unique, especially in early King works. The relationships between Jack and Danny Torrance in The Shining, Carl and Charlie Decker in Rage, and Morgan and Richard Sloat in The Talisman - among others - are destructive (this destruction works on other levels, as well: witness Lewis Creed of Pet Sematary and Bart Dawes of Roadwork, driven obsessive and insane by the death of their sons). Conversely, surrogate fathers like Speedy Parker (The Talisman), Ben Mears ('Salem's Lot), and Jud Crandall (Pet Sematary) provide love, stability, and purpose in the lives of their surrogate sons. However, in The Dead Zone, Herb Smith and his son Johnny are friends beyond being father and son. Ralph Carver ultimately puts faith and trust in his son David's connection with God in Desperation. Most interesting, though, is the relationship between Will Hanlon and his son Mike in It. Will easily transfers his love of history and of the town of Derry to his son Mike as part of a loving, nurturing bond. It is this relationship that most portends that of Ned and Curtis Wilcox, as we watch Curtis's curiosity - the good and the bad - pass down to his son; father's and son's quest for answers form the parallel storylines that make up the backbone of From a Buick 8.
Those parallel storylines also echo that of It (and, to a much lesser degree, Dreamcatcher). Alternating chapters labeled Then and Now allow us to follow Curtis Wilcox's discovery of the Buick's powers and Ned's uncovering his father's story after his death at the same time. King structures these chapters ingeniously: Then chapters are written in third person, while Now chapters are in the first, swapped among the members of Troop D - most often by surrogate father Sandy Dearborn - constructing a sort of oral history of Curtis Wilcox and the Buick. It's a unique approach in King's work; like the use of present tense in Black House and the pervasive magic realism in some Everything's Eventual stories, King's willingness to still experiment with techniques and styles remains refreshing four decades into his career. Both sets of chapters underscore the camaraderie within Troop D, forming a surrogate family for the grieving Ned. Troop D recalls the guards of Cell Block E in The Green Mile, a group of people retaining their basic goodness and companionship in spite of the terrible things that come as part of their job.
One unfortunate flaw in the book is the inclusion, late in the novel, of a hackneyed "trick," something that smacks of cheap, almost "sitcom" gimmickry. While this doesn't detract from the overall force of the novel, elements like this (found elsewhere in Cujo's outrageous coincidences, Harold's continually overlooked journal in The Stand, and the file folder in Under the Dome) frustrate.
From a Buick 8 is a quietly successful novel, using established Stephen King themes to tell a different sort of story. The "lightquakes" the Buick gives off attain the same cinematic quality of Carrie White's telekinetic flexes, John Coffey's healing moments in The Green Mile, and Annie Wilkes's psychotic breaks in Misery; most King novels feature these heightened sequences, and it is a testament to King's writing that he continues to find new ways to showcase them. The fact that there is a mysterious "car" at the center of the book immediately brings to mind Christine (the importance placed on the Buick's odometer and the setting - Western Pennsylvania - solidifies the connection between the two books), but the books couldn't be more dissimilar. Buick continues King's career-long fascination with (and fear of) technology and machinery, furthering themes found in "Trucks," "The Mangler," and "Uncle Otto's Truck," but the cosmic implications are a fresh take on the subject, anticipating the later story "Ur," which would also feature Dark Towerconnections.
Audaciously, From a Buick 8 lacks a firm resolution, further cementing the themes of the inexplicable and the unexplained elsewhere in the novel. We are given vague clues to the Buick's origin (or at least the destination to which people absorbed by the Buick end up), no leads as to the mysterious man who originally abandoned the Buick, or the exact purpose of the purported car itself. While the finale offers some hope - a crack in the Buick's glass does not heal itself, leading the characters to believe that the car's power may be running out - we do not follow beyond that hope. This is a novel about figuring out how to live without answers to the most important questions; in this way, From a Buick 8 becomes a fascinating commentary on itself.