Drawing of the Three, The
by Stephen King (1987)
I love the story and the characters — Roland & Co. are some of the most iconic heroes (and their journey one of the most epic odysseys) in all of literature. But damn, re-reading this series for the third time, and this one more than a decade after my last go-round, I can’t help being distracted by King’s poor writing, something my younger self never noticed.
It’s not something that shows up much in The Gunslinger, mainly because there are so few characters. Even in the beginning of this one it’s okay, again due to the paucity of characters. But the more characters King introduces, the more you start to see the same tropes in all of them, and the more each of them seems like little more than King himself.
That’s not to say he doesn’t develop his characters because he does, and does it well, but their superficial characteristics and mannerisms are extremely inauthentic. Each of them engages in the same quick, witty, so-casual-it’s-unnatural banter. I had never thought about it until reading someone’s review of Gunslinger who mentioned how awful King’s dialogue is, but yeah now it’s definitely hard to miss. An example:
“Put it back,” she said, stern as a schoolteacher. Eddie burst out laughing and obeyed.
“Why are you laughing?
“Because when you said that you sounded like Miss Hathaway. She was my third-grade teacher.”
There are many things wrong with this, not least of which is WHO THE HELL TALKS LIKE THAT?! First of all, the “stern as a schoolteacher” is some elementary school simile type shit, and is also redundant given Eddie’s response. Next up: what young adult junkie fuck-up carries around memories of a grade school teacher on short recall? And if anyone said that in real life, there’s no way you would actually say the teacher’s name, because you’d know that would mean nothing to anyone except yourself. The only reason to include the name is for the author to furnish a detail that will scream to the reader LOOK I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT THIS CHARACTER AND HE HAS A REAL HISTORY! SEE? SEE? RIGHT THERE! A NAME! BECAUSE. . . AUTHENTIC!!!
Finally, the rhythm of it is all wrong as relates to actual human speech. A normal human (though a normal human probably wouldn’t be reminded of a person from their eighth year of life), if they wanted to convey such a sentiment, would say something like, “When you said that you sounded like a teacher I had.” Done and done. Don’t try so hard Stevie.
So the dialogue is bad, but a bigger problem is King’s superficial character development. Even the most minor characters have some cutesy little phrase, saying, ditty, or motto which they repeat ad nauseam, whether to themselves or others. I can only presume it’s supposed to differentiate them from each other, or add a touch of authenticity. But ironically it tends to highlight their artificiality just because most normal people don’t have a running interior monologue that perpetually references both pop culture and their own personal history.
I would bet that very few people go through life like this, but here it’s literally every single character. It would be one thing if it were just one character — Eddie Dean the junkie motormouth seems like the obvious candidate, which is why the problem was less noticeable when it was just him and Roland. But giving that mannerism to every person just makes them all seem like variations on a theme. Too often you hear King’s voice drowning out those of his own characters.
Okay, so going back and reading over that, it sounds like I really hate this book. But I don’t, I love it still. It was my first epic love, over LOTR, and I still think it holds up as one of the best fantasy series of all time. I seriously considered getting a Roland tattoo at several different points, and while I wouldn’t do it today I also don’t think I’d regret it had I actually gone through with it.
The story, characters, and imagery are unbeatable IMO. Those weird-ass lobstrosities. . . Eddie Dean’s naked shootout. . . The wild-eyed Detta. One of my most enduring images in all of literature is Roland’s Wall Street gunslinger striding down a NYC avenue with guns strapped on each hip. Just awesome, in the biblical sense.
So what if reading it in my 30s removes the wool from my eyes? So what if the Odetta/Detta resolution is a bit rushed? Seeing the flaws doesn’t mean it sucks, it’s just acknowledging that it’s not perfect. Few books are. But I’m still looking forward to the rest, and not really expecting King’s style to much improve — indeed, it seems to have worsened from the first to the second book — but also knowing it doesn’t matter in the long run, as long as the story and characters stay true.