Song of Susannah
by Stephen King (2004)
I liked this wayyyyy more than I expected to. Very nearly loved it in fact. Wolves of the Calla left me pessimistic about where the series was headed (see my review), but this entry fixed most of the major problems that one suffered: after almost 1500 pages of interrupting flashbacks and Wolf-y diversions, this one was pure present-tense, plot-moving story; also, King brought back a more serious, somber tone that the story had lately been lacking; and most importantly it gave Susannah something meaty to do besides damsel it up. Even the author inserting himself seemed reasonable overall. Well done Steve-o!
One of the best things about this was that Eddie, due to circumstances, spent almost the entire book in a serious frame of mind. And Serious Eddie does not make painfully annoying wisecracks every other page (cracks which are really just thinly-veiled King-isms). Plus!
And I know some people disagree, but I don’t think anyone will ever convince me that King isn’t at his best when pushing himself into this epic, mythical voice that he is able to wield so frequently in this particular volume. I’m talking, for example, about those times when hypnotized people begin speaking of the Tower — Mats does it, so does the hotel clerk and King himself later on. Nothing gives me goosebumps quite like the characters in a story that I’ve loved since my childhood saying things like, “It belongs to the Tower, sai. The Dark Tower. And it’s to there I’ll return it, ka willing. 89” These characters I love finally getting serious is something I’ve been awaiting for awhile now, and King delivers here, maybe even despite himself.
The story really works IMO. I don’t know if other fans had better ideas of how this was going to get resolved, but I certainly didn’t. Sure, King inserting himself verges on the grandiose at times, but it also makes sense to the story, which is by far the more important factor. And the story has clearly meant so much to King on a personal level (as evidenced by the enlightening and poignant coda, nothing more than a semi-fictionalized “diary” of King’s musings on the Tower) that I can’t blame him for mixing himself into the proceedings. If the Dark Tower is as important as he’s been telling us it is for 30+ years, then it probably shouldcross over into our reality as well, no? Anything less would be rather trivial.
So the story’s about as good as can be, as are the characters. The Unknown Door scene at the beginning was one of the highlights, just expertly done. I did feel short shrifted on the Jake/Oy/Callahan angle; I loved what I got but I really wish King could have structured the tale in a way that they either had more to do or showed up sooner in the proceedings. As is they felt like afterthoughts. And while I relished Susannah’s long-overdue development, her “Dogan” was ridiculous and her “special seeing skill” felt tacked on.
Beyond those structural/creative issues, the only problem I had with the book was the same thing that’s bothered me since Drawing of the Three: King inserts himself so frequently into the voice of his characters that it’s at best distracting and at worst cringe-worthy. For instance: Susannah making a baseball analogy concerning the minor vs. major leagues? Yeah, not believable. Susannah pausing during a tense palaver with Mia in Fedic to have cheesy thoughts about Satan and motherhood? Yeah no. Dramatic irony involving the World Trade Center? As forced as Eddie’s unnecessary Microsoft digression.
King really appears unable to help himself with these distracting, irritating remarks that do little except remind you that King is the author of the story. A lot of it just seems like lazy writing, as if it were too tiring to put himself in his characters’ shoes for as long as would have been required. I found myself wondering if he would have been able to churn out better product if he weren’t so ridiculously prolific, almost hyperactive really. But nothing, and I mean NOTHING, was as bad as the return of the Hippie-Cowboy and his pimples, the most vomitous example of Kingurbation from the previous book. My reaction:
Basically, if King was sincerely as concerned with the STORY as he claims to have been, he would have done the difficult thing and entrusted a bold editor to rein him in on stuff like this. The whole series (save for the already tonally distinct Gunslinger) would have benefitted dramatically.
In fact I have half a mind, some day when I have the luxury and privilege of the free time it will require, to edit it myself — to make a “Good Parts” version a la The Princess Bride or The Phantom Edit. It wouldn’t be significantly different in content, but the whole series would probably be at least 2-300 pages lighter and the tone much graver throughout (as I feel it deserves).
Until then, we’re left with this: a flawed masterpiece that has gripped me like few other stories. I can’t honestly say if that’s just because I first read it as a nerdy teen — Gan knows the things you read and watch as a kid stick with you for life — but it is what it is. I can say for sure that I’m not ashamed of loving it even after reading it as an adult, so it’s certainly got something. But this volume is up there with Waste Lands and Wizard & Glass as my favorites of the whole series.