Monday, August 11, 2014

His Hair Went Silver While Mine Just Went: A Look At Stephen King's "Dolan's Cadillac"

Finally -- here we are at the first entry in my Nightmares & Dreamscapes series. Settle into your favorite chair and read along, and try not to laugh too hard at my occasional inability to talk about this story.

This one is pretty friggin' great.

The story in question is Stephen King's "Dolan's Cadillac," the opener of his 1993 short story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes -- N&D for short. I remembered liking this story a good deal, but I was never totally enamored with it. It was one of the rare short stories where I felt King got a little long in the tooth and a bit caught up in technical details. Now I realize the story is the perfect length. You see, we the readers need the details (which didn't take up as much story as my mind had exaggerated -- that's what happens when you haven't read something in a while, I suppose). The lengths to which our main character, simply called Robinson, go to to get his revenge are staggering but are very necessary to the plot. We need to feel what it's like when Robinson digs that hole.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. What, exactly, is "Dolan's Cadillac" even about?

In short, Dolan, local wealthy mobster-type, has Robinson's wife Elizabeth murdered because she "told" on something he did to the FBI. This area of the story is left to our imaginations, but that's okay -- we "get" it. After seven years of watching and waiting and plotting, third grade school-teacher Robinson finally starts taking the steps to extract his revenge.

In a less-capable author's hands, a short story about a scorned widower wanting revenge for his wife's death might not be anything great, but Stephen King isn't just any ole author, is he?

Robinson begins working out. On summer break, he gets hired on with a highway construction crew. In Las Vegas. In the desert. These passages are almost painful to read about (says he who avoids the sun whenever possible), but that's their job. For example: 

"The big struggle was not to faint, to hold onto consciousness no matter what. All through June I held on, and the first week of July, and then Blocker sat down next to me one lunch hour while I was eating a sandwich with one shaking hand. I shook sometimes until ten at night. It was the heat. It was either shake or faint, and when I thought of Dolan I somehow managed to keep shaking."

In this passage we are neatly shown the wretchedness of the job, Robinson's dedication to getting stronger, and his utter hatred of Dolan. I'd like you to take a moment and put yourself in our narrator's shoes. Has anyone ever done you so wrong that you would stop at nothing to get back at them? Even if it meant shoveling hot tar under the desert sun? One of my favorite topics in modern fiction is revenge, and I'm not sure why. Regardless, I love it and King covers the topic well, especially here and in Needful Things (a book I'll definitely be writing about soon enough). If you can put yourself in this guy's shoes . . . then you'll see the magic, the clincher of the story. What if . . . 

So the summer ends and Robinson goes back to teaching. He's a buff guy now, and his fellow teachers don't laugh at him like they used to. Two more years pass -- two more years of working out, road-work, plotting, and stalking Dolan. Finally, the plan for revenge comes together. 

Las Vegas desert

Dolan has a place in Las Vegas and a place in L.A., and spends a lot of time on the road between the two riding in his Cadillac. Robinson knows this.  After finding out the upcoming year's schedule for road re-pavements that will result in highway detours, our narrator stealthily waits for: a.) time off b.) a long weekend c.) travel for Dolan, and d.) a national holiday. The stars align for the fourth of July weekend -- Dolan will be stayed at his Las Vegas place for the holiday. Robinson begins consulting his mathematician friend for instructions on how to dig a grave big enough for a Cadillac in the highway, and the voice in his head of his  dead beloved for strength and guidance. 

After days and weeks and months of planning and more planning (our main character's patience and attention to detail is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the story), Robinson gets the tools he need to dig the grave to fit a Cadillac with Dolan and his guards inside. It isn't easy -- Robinson spends two long, hot days digging this thing and one is reminded of the boys' exhaustion in The Long Walk -- but he finishes it just in the nick of time. The trap is set; now we wait. 

From the film Dolan's Cadillac

Like a lamb to the slaughter, Dolan's driver doesn't see the trap until it's too late and the car is in the hole with only four inches or so sticking out above ground. The doors can't be opened more than a foot. Robinson moves the road-work signs he's moved around to his advantage back to their rightful spots so people don't think this particular stretch of highway is drive-able, and also so he and Dolan can finally -- after all this time -- be alone. 

"I . . . felt a jittery moment of what I can only term sympathetic claustrophobia. Push the window-buttons -- nothing. Try the doors, even though you can see they're going to clunk to a full stop long before you could squeeze through. 
Then I stopped trying to imagine, because he was the one who had bought this wasn't he? Yes. He had bought his own ticket and paid a full fare. 
'Who's there?'
'Me,' I said, 'but I'm not the help you're looking for, Dolan.' 
I kicked another fan of grit and pebbles across the gray Cadillac's roof."

If I'm being 100% honest, despite this scene being terribly horrific, I can't help but feel a lot of satisfaction for Robinson -- he got Dolan back, and how! The dude had men strap dynamite to this guy's wife's car and had her blown to pieces, and now he's getting his. This is terrifying stuff, but what a ride! 

"'Get me out!' he shrieked. 'Please! I can't stand it! Get me out!'
'You ready for that counter-proposal?' I asked. 
'Yes! Yes! Christ! Yes! Yes! Yes!'
'Scream. That's the counter-proposal. That's what I want. If you scream loud enough, I'll let you out.'
He screamed piercingly. 
'That was good!' I said, and I meant it. 'But it was nowhere near good enough.'


' . . . if you make a sound come out of your mouth which is as loud, let us say, as eight sticks of dynamite taped to the ignition switch of a 1968 Chevrolet, then I will let you out, and you may count on it.' 

Needless to say, Dolan never does scream quite loud enough. He tries, oh yes, he tries, but it isn't good enough. Eventually, Robinson begins covering up the Cadillac's grave while trying to ignore the mad laughter and gun-shots from below. He goes home, soaks in the tub for hours, and eventually has to have surgery on his back due to the strenuous bind he put it in while digging the deep, long hole. But it was worth it, and this guy knows it -- oh yeah, he knows it. After a while, life goes back to normal, and all is well. Dang it if King didn't give this one a happy ending! 

(Some snatches of quotes from the story I really liked, but didn't really fit in with the rest of the post):

  • "Schoolteachers and high-priced hoodlums do not have the same freedom of movement; it's just an economic fact of life."
  • "'She was in pieces,' I croaked. 'I loved her and she was in pieces.' As a cheer it was never going to replace 'Go, Bears!' or 'Hook em, horns!' but it got me moving." 
  • "But it was not really her voice that persuaded me to go on. What really turned the trick was an image of Dolan lying asleep in his penthouse while I stood here in this hole beside a stinking, rumbling bucket-loader, covered with dirt, my hands in flaps and ruins. Dolan sleeping in silk pajama bottoms with one of his blondes beside him, wearing only the top. Downstairs, in the glassed-in executive section of the parking garage, the Cadillac, already loaded with luggage, would be gassed and ready to go. 'All right, then,' I said. I climbed slowly back into the bucket-loader's seat and revved the engine." 
  • "And Elizabeth? Like Dolan, she has fallen silent. I find that is a relief."   

This re-read definitely changed my opinion of this story from "yeah, it's pretty good, but it drags a bit" to "this is one of King's best short stories." I'm not sure if it would be in my top ten, but that's more of a testament to how great King's stories are in general. It's a definite winner, though. 

Coming up (sometime . . .): "The End Of the Whole Mess"



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