G.P. Putnam's Sons • 1987 • 558 pages
A Novel Critique
Word count and page count have never particularly worried Stephen King. His novels are often complex and are populated with large casts of characters, justifying their substantial heft. In most cases - The Stand, It, Duma Key, among others - the length seems justified, given the nature of the story and the intricacies of the people within it. Some, though, seem overlong, the story unable to bear up against the weight of the storytelling. The Tommyknockers fits uncomfortably in this latter category.
One day while working in her back wood in the town of Haven, Maine, Roberta Anderson stumbles on a thin piece of metal jutting out of the ground. Driven at first by natural curiosity, she begins to dig. Elsewhere, her friend and former lover, Jim Gardener (known as Gard, one of King's more obvious symbolic names), speaks drunkenly about the dangers of nuclear energy, spitting out statistics following a reading of his poems. He raves about a society of people playing around with powers it can't comprehend, neatly underlining King's intent with the novel. That Gard is kicked out anticipates his struggle throughout the novel: when faced with what seems like a miraculous source of limitless power, people will refuse to consider the consequences until it is too late.
The metal Anderson finds in the woods turns out to be an ancient spaceship buried in the ground. As more of the spaceship is uncovered, the more Bobbi Anderson - and the people of Haven - are able to create gadgets that help them in their everyday life. But, as Gard comes to realize, the power that gives the folk of Haven their abilities to build has neglected to give them the ability to comprehend what they're building. They tinker, but don't understand. Gard's realization that the unseen power of the ship is actually more detrimental than it at first seems: not only are the Haven folk changing mentally, they are changing physically. More frequent menstrual flows, loss of teeth and hair, skin becoming sallow: the people of Haven call this "The Becoming," but they are also the symptoms of radiation poisoning, a dark metaphor not lost on Gard.
The Tommyknockers is certainly not King's first attempt at trying to impart a social message through his fiction. The Dead Zone and Firestarterindicted governments with absolute power; Roadwork's subtitle was "A Novel of the First Energy Crisis." The Talisman even explored the concept of nuclear testing and its aftermath (followed up later in The Waste Lands). In those books, the message served the story. Here, King's allegory is so strong that The Tommyknockers's subtext threatens to overwhelm the story. Only in the later Gerald's Game does King's attempt at a message seem more obvious and distracting.
Still, The Tommyknockers attempts a coherent and exciting story while working in the constructs of social commentary. Much of this is compelling. Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardner are real people with a complex, fascinating relationship. Both are writers, and some of the more interesting moments of The Tommyknockers concern how the writing affects them, dealing with issues first broached in Misery. Gardner's desire to be taken seriously as a poet parallels Paul Sheldon's initial struggle, while Anderson creates a device that allows her to write telepathically, so that she can literally work on her novels in her sleep. While Gard's alcoholism recalls Sheldon's Novril addiction, Bobbi's telepathic writing is actually more unnerving, following up on Sheldon's addiction to writing. While both It and Misery examined the positive and negative effects of writing, The Tommyknockers focuses mainly on the unhealthy aspects, a thread King will follow into The Dark Half and "Secret Window, Secret Garden."
King's unusually potent first chapter title - "Anderson Stumbles" - both underlines the incidental nature of Bobbi's discovery and foreshadows her downfall, setting up the book's major themes in two words. The fact that the entire narrative hinges on an accident not only hammers home King's motif of misunderstood power, it also brings to mind the structure of Cujo, without any of that book's frustrating coincidences. There are also genuine moments of excitement and fear in the book, most notably when Gard first notices the enhancements Bobbi has made to her home (itself a metaphor for the American obsession with creature comforts), especially a simple yet chilling change she has made to her riding lawnmower. All of this is in line with King's ongoing interest in the horrors of machinery, first explored in "Trucks" and "The Mangler" and continuing on through Christine, "Uncle Otto's Truck," and later works such as From a Buick 8 and Cell.
Unfortunately, much of this effective character and thematic work is lost in the morass of pages, as is the novel's fitful momentum. King allows himself to give into excesses, following subplots far longer than their stories demand, and at one point bringing the book to a standstill to explain why the town is named Haven. (As a point of comparison, 'Salem's Lot explains its name in a sentence, and we learn the background of Derry's name in under a paragraph. Part of the problem is that the history of Derry is central to the nature of It, while the history of Haven is simply not as important.) King also indulges in a glut of self-referential moments. While many of his books connect to others (and even more intricately and frequently as the Dark Tower series folded many of King's works into its overarching framework), The Tommyknockers does so seemingly randomly and without purpose. Elements from The Dead Zone, Firestarter, and It all appear, some inconsistently with what we know from past books, and King actually makes mention of himself (a more intrusive and less necessary mention than that in The Dead Zone).
While The Tommyknockers is interesting and readable, it ultimately works against itself. One wonders what the result would be if King were to revise the book as he has done with The Stand and The Gunslinger, trimming instead of expanding, excising the unnecessary bits and leaving behind the novel that lies buried in its pages: a dark allegory that functions as an entertaining story, driven by exciting characters and inexplicable events.