Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Low Men In Yellow Coats" part II

As promised, here's the second and final part of my discussion of "Low Men In Yellow Coats", which is the first story in Hearts In Atlantis. It sets up several themes that are seen again and again throughout the book - loss of innocence, growing up, and learning that adults don't always make the problems go away. . . Sometimes adults are the cause of a lot of heartache.

I must admit I'm a bit intimidated. I've never really written an analysis of a story or book that goes as deep as I want this one to. It might not be worth much in the end, but be patient - I'll learn! There is so much I want to say about this novella because it affected me a lot - much more on the second read than the first. That's not to say it didn't touch me on the first go-around - it did. I just noticed many more things this time.

The first thing I want to talk about is Bobby's relationship with his mother, Liz, which is definitely a driving force in LMIYC. The relationship is strained from the start:

Bobby knew what was coming next; it was his mother's all-time favorite. 
"Life isn't fair," said Liz Garfield as she took out her housekey and prepared to unlock the door of 149 Broad Street in the town of Harwich, Connecticut. It was April of 1960, the night breathed spring perfume, and standing beside her was a skinny boy with his dead father's risky red hair. She hardly ever touched his hair; on the infrequent occasions when she caressed him, it was usually his arm or his cheek which she touched.

Liz, single mother and woman of many sayings, isn't very affectionate toward her only son. King doesn't try to decorate it or sugarcoat it: this woman is selfish and inconsiderate. However, she doesn't hate her son. There are a few instances where she shows affection toward Bobby, and he does know she loves him . . . she's simply a scared manipulator. Think about it: a single woman raising a child has a hard time now. Think about how scary it was in 1960 to be a woman on her own. Luckily, Liz does have a job as a secretary at a real estate firm, and she's trying with all her might to get her foot in the door as a realtor. There are many late nights at the office, however (if you know what I mean), so Bobby is often alone at the apartment. Liz is trying to make her way in the world, but sometimes she forgets to care about her son.

Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and Liz Garfield (Hope Davis) at the breakfast table in Hearts In Atlantis.

Bobby turns 11 at the beginning of the story, and his mother gets him a library card for his birthday. An adult library card. It doesn't seem like much at first, especially to a kid who wants a Schwinn bicycle, but Bobby isn't selfish or spoiled. He's thankful for his card, and he soon puts it to good use. He learns about the magical worlds contained in books, but we'll get to that a little later. 

Liz isn't happy at all about Bobby becoming friends with the older gentleman, Ted Brautigan, who moves in upstairs. She's determined that Ted isn't a good influence on her son, and she's set out from the start to not like him no matter what he does. She's determined that Ted touches Bobby, and tries to be as mean to him as possible without being obvious. Small things such as calling him Mr. Brattigan instead of Brautigan are Liz's way of showing her distrust. There is a rather apt passage somewhere in the novella about Liz feeling one way - usually hatred - toward people, and it was nearly impossible for her to change her opinion once it was set. Bobby thought it, and he compared it to drawing Xs over someone's face. (Yours truly didn't take very diligent notes while reading because I've never really tried doing this before - I'll do better next time. I promise.) Anyway, the Low Men whom are looking for Ted leave wanted pet posters on trees and telephone poles as one way of many of communicating. 



says a few posters. That is followed by a strange number. A big reward is promised (it turns out to be a measly three hundred bucks.)

In case you have not picked up on it, Liz Garfield is a bit of a rhymes-with-witch. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. She comes across one of the posters asking for information on Ted's whereabouts, and she jumps on the opportunity, showing her true colors once and for all. Why would she do that, though? Why would she do something that she knows could possibly hurt a kind old man and also betray her son? 

To be honest, I can kind of sympathize with her. Kind of.  As I said in the previous post, Ted gave Bobby the job of looking out for the Low Men, but Bobby told his mother he reads the newspaper to Ted, since the old fella's eyesight isn't much good anymore (that's really a lie - his eyes are fine). Getting paid a dollar a week for a job like that might raise some alarm bells to a mother. She's suspicious of the man upstairs, is all. After coming home from a business trip, she finds Bobby, Ted, and Bobby's friend Carol in the apartment with Carol in Ted's lap, her blouse cut, she's crying, and he's holding her pretty tight. Alright, yeah. At first, that could seem wrong. Liz, however, takes it way over the top and freaks out, yelling and threatening to call the cops. The reader is told way before this that Carol was beaten up by three older bullies in the park. (More on that later - it makes for one of the sweetest moments of revenge King has ever penned.) One used a baseball bat on her and dislocated her shoulder. Ted is popping it into place when Liz walks in. Long story short, Ted was leaving anyway because he can feel the Low Men coming in (he has . . . ahem, well, on another level of The Tower, it'd be called "shining", which is what the Low Men are after), so he'll be leaving. Bobby doesn't want him to go, but it's necessary.  If it hadn't been for Liz . . . maybe there would be hope. But, no. As usual, she gets what she wants while Bobby suffers.
That pretty much sums up Liz Brautigan: she gets what she wants while Bobby suffers. She lies about his deceased father, saying he spent too much time gambling in bars when in actuality he never lost money, and if he did, it wasn't that much. Liz simply has no one else to really love her, so she feeds Bobby lies to make herself seem better when compared to his dead father in hopes that he'll stick with her forever - after all, she's the adult and adults can never cause pain, right?
Up next is Sully-John (or John Sullivan, if you prefer). He's Bobby's best male friend, and while it seems as though I'd have a lot to say about him, I don't. The friendship is simple, much like any other friendship between two eleven-year-old boys, I guess. (Also, seriously: are there NO good pics of the kid who played Sully in the movie adaption out there?! I tried finding one, but couldn't, so just picture him in your mind's eye, gentle readers: tall, tan, muscular, with short blond hair. Yeah, I suck at this blogging thing LOLZ). Sully-John is funny, light-hearted, and basically a good guy all-around. There's not as much depth to him as there is in the other characters (and what characteristics he did have in the story were, sadly, almost completely cut from  the movie), but SK makes us feel for him all the same. I'm sure we all had a pal like him at eleven: he could make you smile and forget the cares of the world with a yo-yo bouncing in one hand while he sips a soda in the other, all with  world's goofiest smile on his face. Okay, maybe you didn't have a friend like that, but you get what I mean.
About half-way through the story, John goes away to camp and doesn't return until near the conclusion of the story. He's still nice to Bobby, and eager to tell all about his adventures at camp, but Bobby quickly tires of it because he . . . well, feels left out. He didn't get to go to camp; he had to stay home. He didn't have the fun that Sully and Sully's new friends that he made at camp had. Sully, always the great athlete, moves up to the . . . ahem, more "athletically-skilled" kids' summer baseball team (the Lions), while Bobby is stuck on the old team (the Wolves). And with that, Sully-John and Bobby finally drift apart, but isn't that how it is many times in real life? Friends simply come and go.
He looked like a kid who would never be a Wolf again. S-J had been to Camp Winnie, had short-sheeted beds, had stayed up late telling ghost stories around a campfire. He would be a Lion forever and Bobby hated him.
If I'm being completely honest, I've felt similar feelings toward a friend or two over the years. I was not blessed with athletic ability (which is why, I guess, I started a blog dedicated to analyzing books? Ha ha ha ha ha ha my life), but I've definitely had friends that have been, and they moved on to various friends they met on their teams. It sucks feeling left out, truth be told. The quoted passage is one of my favorites in all of HiA because it cuts the skin and goes straight to the bone. At least, for me.

Mika Boreem starring as Carol Gerber in Hearts In Atlantis.
He already knew that kissing Carol at the top of the Ferris wheel was going to be the best part of his day. It was his first real kiss, too, and Bobby never forgot the feel of her lips pressing on his - dry and smooth and warmed from the sun. It was the kiss by which all the others of his life would be judged and found wanting.
Carol Gerber (as seen in the picture above) is Bobby's friend, probably closer to him than anyone else, including Sully-John and Ted Brautigan. At the beginning of the story, she's a bit of a tomboy with (as Ted puts it) the "heart of a lion." That's true, too - Carol is a tough one, not unlike IT's Beverly Marsh. Of course, she has eyes for Bobby, and while Bobby returns the attraction later on, at first he dismisses it as Carol being "mushy" - for instance, Carol gives Bobby a sweet birthday card with hearts and whatnot drawn on, and Carol tells him she hopes it isn't too babyish (meaning the card). Bobby kinda thinks it's mushy, but he is moved by her gesture all the same. I'm not entirely sure why, but that scene brings up some emotion in me - maybe it's King's writing (I don't think everything King does is perfect, I swear!). I dunno. It's just sweet and nostalgic and all that.

Yay! A picture with Sully in it!
Carol, Bobby, Sully and some of Carol's girlfriends go to the beach (after Bobby has an argument with his mother about money, of course), where Bobby finally kisses her on the top of the Ferris wheel. Once again, it's a sweet scene. The story progresses, and Bobby and Carol's friendship deepens, and Bobby eventually tells Carol of the Low Men whom are after Ted. She doesn't really freak out or anything, which is another example of Carol being cool. She's a comfort to Bobby, and aren't the best of friends always comforting?
The local bullies, the boys from St. Gabe (a Catholic school) harass Bobby and Carol multiple times when they find the two in the park. One, Willie Sherman (we'll hear more from him in a later story), is nice to Carol when he's alone, but he goes along with the name-calling and taunting when with his friends. The boys are a few years older than Bobby and Carol, and while Bobby always tries to stick up for Carol, it just doesn't end well. Bobby's too small. In a cringe-inducing scene, the Catholic school boys find Carol alone and beat her with a baseball bat. Her shoulder is dislocated, she's bruised and bleeding, and the boys leave her alone in a grove of trees in the park after hearing her ear-splitting wail of pain - they don't want to chance getting caught. Finally, Bobby happens to be walking past the trees and he hears her weakly saying his name...
Carol Gerber was Bobby's height, perhaps even a little taller, and close to his weight. He should have been incapable of even staggering up Broad Street with her in his arms, but people in shock are capable of amazing bursts of strength. Bobby carried her, and not at a stagger; under that burning June sun he ran. No one stopped him, no one asked him what was wrong with the little girl, no one offered to help. He could hear cars on Asher Avenue, but this part of the world seemed eerily like Midwich, where everyone had gone to sleep at once.
Taking Carol to her mother never crossed his mind. The Gerber apartment was farther up the hill, but that wasn't the reason. Ted was all Bobby could think of. He had to take her to Ted. Ted would know what to do.  
Ted quickly takes Carol is his arms, and rushes her in the Garfield apartment. He eases her mind with his special mental abilities and then pops her shoulder back into place. It's as this moment Liz comes home from her work trip where she's been raped and abused by her boss, and she simply thinks the same is happening to little Carol - the girl's torn blouse, bruises, and the drying tears on her face. A fight ensues, and soon Ted is on his way to collect his winnings on a bet he made on a local fight (having psychic abilities sure can come in handy!) and then . . . who knows? He can sense the Low Men drawing near, anyway. It's time to go.
Soon after, Liz gets a job in another state and thus, the mother and son move. Bobby has turned into a rebellious kid, constantly getting in fights, drinking, smoking a  pack a day by the time he's fifteen. He later finds the boy who hurt Carol, and beats him with his own baseball bat, which is one of the best moments of revenge King has ever written.
Bobby has changed. He feels his world shifting under his feet and leaving him. He and Carol keep in touch by letter after the move, but the letters are always timid, as if the innocent, pure love felt in that magical kiss on the Ferris wheel is like a beautiful vase: once shattered, it can never be put back the same way again.
There's one more person I haven't discussed, isn't there? Of course, by this point, you know who he is and a good deal of his story, but let's get down to the nitty-gritty.
Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan in Hearts In Atlantis.
Ted Brautigan is a strange (and nice and charming and extremely well-read) man with mental abilities that go way beyond being a run-of-the-mill "psychic" (I've referred to him as one in this blog thus far to keep things simple), and he's on the run from the Low Men in yellow coats. They're after him. . . But why?
Well, fans of Dark Tower, Ted is a breaker. For the ones who don't have a clue what that is, a breaker is  a supernatural being with mind-boggling (no pun intended) mental strength who is sniffed out by the Low Men for one job and one job only: bringing down the Dark Tower, AKA the axis on which our universe and every other universe spins. It's the center of . . . everything. People with the mental ability to break are rare. Beings as powerful, mentally, as Ted, are even more rare. Ted escaped from the rule of the Low Men and their higher power, the Crimson King, and now the king's minions will stop at nothing to get the man. You see, before we go any further in this blog, you must understand that Stephen King is more than an author. He is a creator, and his bibliography is a world. Everything connects in some way. Of course, some connections are easier to find than others, but it's all there. That's one of the main things that will be discussed in this blog - how does this connect? And yes - it all, in some way, revolves around King's magnum opus - the Dark Tower series. Ted will later go on to help Roland Deschain and his ka-tet by using his special power in the seventh, final book of the series, which is something we'll get to soon enough.
Anyway, luckily for Bobby and Ted, the Low Men are easy to detect - they leave wanted pet posters on telephone poles and trees, sometimes upside down. They drive "loud and vulgar" cars and wear what look like yellow rain slickers. Ted (and Bobby, by association) can feel an itching behind the eyeballs when they're near. They leave comets and stars drawn in chalk by hop-scotch games. They leave kite-tails on telephone wires. The list goes on and on, but it's a list of things most people would not pick up on. Bobby, as hired by Ted, looks out for these things, and when he sees them, he doesn't want to tell the man. Ted has become his friend, and Bobby doesn't want him to go. Bobby is lonely, but Ted makes him feel grown up and safe. Heck, Ted loves the kid as well. However, after a few months, it's simply time for Ted to go. He's having black-outs more regularly, and he can feel the Low Men closing in. Ted leaves, but it's not soon enough. Thanks to Liz's call, Ted is captured right in front of Bobby. Bobby can come with them, they offer . . . but he cannot even bear to look at them. He's learned to be a coward, or so one Low Man says.

It's in this moment all that Bobby knows shatters around him: Ted is gone, and it's all thanks to his mother. She called and he knows it. She eventually lies to him about refusing to accept the Low Men's reward, but enough of Ted has rubbed off on him for a while that he can see right through that into her mind. She's full of it, and he knows it.

Bobby had given Ted Carol's address, so they could one day, hopefully, write letters to each other or something. Ted doesn't want to have Bobby's address, because Bobby is so closely connected to Ted, and he wouldn't want any danger to fall upon the boy. For years, Bobby receives nothing and has no idea where Ted is, or if he is even still alive. He eventually moves on, going in and out of juvie and breaking his mother's heart repeatedly. One day, he receives something in the mail from Carol, whom hadn't written in a while, herself. Enclosed is a short, polite letter from Carol, and . . . something else. It's an envelope filled with rose pedals.

There was no letter, no note, no writing of any kind. When Bobby tilted the envelope, what showered down on the surface of his desk were rose pedals of the deepest, darkest red he had ever seen.
Heart's blood, he thought, exalted without knowing why. All at once, and for the first time in years, he remembered how you could take your mind away, how you could just put it on parole. And even as he thought of it he felt his thoughts lifting. The rose pedals gleamed on the scarred surface of his desk like rubies, like secret light spilled from the world's secret heart.
Not just one world, Bobby thought. Not just one. There are other worlds than this, millions of worlds, all turning on the spindle of the Tower.
And then he thought: He got away from them. He's free again.
The pedals left no room for doubt. They were all the yes anyone could ever need; all the you-may, all the it's-true.
Now they go, now they slow, Bobby thought, knowing he had heard those words before, not remembering where or knowing why they recurred to him now. Not caring, either.
Ted was free. Not in this world and time, this time he had run in another direction . . . but in some world.

That just about wraps up "Low Men In Yellow Coats". It sets Hearts In Atlantis up nicely, what with it's theme of losing innocence and trust, growing old, and not losing yourself no matter how hard it is. Those are things that will be touched on again and again in the following four stories, none of which are as long and expansive as this one turned out to be.

Next time: find out what happens to Carol Gerber when she starts college in Maine in the mid-60s - it's "Hearts In Atlantis".

Friday, January 3, 2014

Introduction / "Low Men In Yellow Coats"

Hello, Internet world! It's exciting to start a new blog because I haven't written anything that wasn't a narrative in so long. I'm a little rusty, so stick with me! :)

I used to have a Stephen King-centric blog, but I have, unfortunately, forgotten the URL. I tried to find it, but alas, I could not. It's a shame, too - I was pretty fond of some of the posts there (he says so humbly). Therefore, a new blog was necessary. This one won't be all Stephen King - I'll be writing about a variety of authors and their works (hence the list of my favorite authors on the right - I won't be sticking to only the authors on that list, either), I'll just be talking about Stephen King . . . oh, how does 85-90% of the time sound? He is my favorite, after all! Luckily, King's work doesn't stop with his novels. There are short stories, novellas, movie adaptions, screen plays, nonfiction, etc. and so on to discuss. It's almost impossible for any one for person to make a definite list of any and every thing Stephen King's name is attached to, and that's great. I'll never run out of things to post about!

As I said earlier, however, I won't be posting about SK all the time. That would get old for you and me in a hurry. One project I would like to begin is discussion of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series (remember those, 90s/early 00s kids?). I used to have them all but stupidly sold them in a yard sale many years ago, but I'm currently working on building the collection back up. I've almost acquired them all, too! Of course, those posts will mostly be sarcastic looks at them because their target audience is . . . well, 8-year-olds. Let's face it: they're pretty cheesy. But I have a certain fondness of the series due to reading them obsessively back in elementary school (so that's why I love Stephen King!), and I'm curious to see how they hold up a decade or so later. I have a feeling some of my old favorites (Welcome To Dead House, The Ghost Next Door, The Haunted Mask, You Can't Scare Me!) have probably held up decently enough because they're genuinely creepy stories (for Goosebumps, anyway). I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that I'll have to trudge my way through a few that shall remain nameless for now, but we'll see soon enough!

One more thing before you go, if you don't mind - I'd like to talk (type?) a bit about Stephen King's novella "Low Men In Yellow Coats", which comes from his 1999 book Hearts In Atlantis.

"Low Men In Yellow Coats" is the first in this book of five stories, and it might be my favorite ("Hearts In Atlantis" and "Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling" - which is where I got the name for this blog - are pretty close, though) because of the quick, concise way King draws his characters and pulls the reader into his story, which is a skill that by this stage in his career many readers felt he had lost. It's set in 1960 Harwich, Connecticut (yes, SK sometimes ventures out of Maine in his writing), and it evokes such a powerful feeling of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and then losing said innocence (loss of innocence is definitely a running theme - if not the theme - throughout the entire book) that it kind of feels like I'm reading about my own childhood, which is something King manages to accomplish again and again in his writing - especially in this, "The Body", and IT

What, exactly, is this story about? One of the main stars is  Bobby Garfield, an 11-year-old. His best friends are Sully-John and Carol (even if she is a girl!). He lives with his sometimes-cold-all-the-time-distant mother, Liz, who constantly claims Bobby's father didn't "leave them too well off" when he died years prior. Bobby's mother works too much, and he's often alone at home in their rather crappy apartment until an interesting man moves into the apartment upstairs. That man is the other star in this novella - Ted Brautigan, mysterious reader of many, many books. I have to say, Ted is probably one of the coolest adult characters King has ever written. He almost always gets it right with kids, but it's a bit spottier with adults for some reason. Maybe that's because I haven't reached full adulthood yet, so I can't relate to some of King's grown-up characters, whereas I've had many experiences in my life that make me feel like I'm closer to the kid/kids in his stories. I dunno. 

Anyway, Ted and Bobby quickly hit it off, and soon Ted hires Bobby for a "special" job. Ted will pay the boy a dollar a week, and Bobby can't believe his luck! He's been saving up for a Schwinn bicycle because his mother simply "can't afford it"- or so she says (more on that later). This special job is to look for people. Men. Strange men that look out of place in Harwich. Bobby has lived in the small town long enough, Ted decides, that the kid would notice anyone that stands out. These men have something that Ted wants, and they're trying to find him. He's on the run from this strange men - the low men in yellow coats. What do they want from Ted? The only clues we're given (up until the part I've re-read, anyway, which is all I'm going to cover in this post), is Ted has a mental gift, and in one trance of many he accidentally goes into near Bobby, he mutters "All things serve the Beam." Hmmmm.... I'm sensing a Dark Tower connection! 

Some of my favorite quotes from this novella:

  •  "Hearts can break. Yes, hearts can break. Sometimes I think it would be better if we died when they did, but we don't." 
  •  "Anything with the power to make you laugh over thirty years later isn’t a waste of time. I think something like that is very close to immortality." 
  •  "Come to a book as you would come to an unexplored land. Come without a map. Explore it, and draw your own map.... A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. " 
  •  "A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give." 
  •  "What if there were no grownups? Suppose the whole idea of grownups was an illusion? What if their money was really just playground marbles, their business deals no more than baseball-card trades, their wars only games of guns in the park? What if they were all still snotty-nosed kids inside their suits and dresses? Christ, that couldn't be, could it? It was too horrible to think about." 
 This post was a bit too brief - sorry about that. The next post, which will discuss what happens in the novella in a bit more detail (specifically the latter half), character analyses, discussion of the Dark Tower connection, and more (jeez, I sound like a commercial or something) will probably be a bit longer. I'll write it when I have more time and when I've actually finished re-reading the novella! After that, I'll move on to the other novellas and short stories in this fine book, and then one could probably expect a post about the movie adaption of "Low Men In Yellow Coats", but that probably won't happen for a while. This is a book I want to take my time with and post thoroughly, because I feel like it's one of King's most important - it's about an entire generation's loss of innocence and the affect the 60s had on the children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. This story is only one arc of five, and by the end they all come together to weave a narrative of time, mistakes, love, growing up and getting old. Oh, and there's some military/killing stuff, which is always fun. So yeah. It'll require some time and thought, but it'll be worth it!

"Sometimes when you're young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you're living on someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been. Then we grow up and our hearts break into two."