Waste Lands, The
by Stephen King (1991)
I find myself downgrading all of these books from when I last read them over a decade ago in my early 20s. Back then they were the best ever, and while downgrading them now may give the impression of disappointment, it’s actually the opposite: I expected them to not hold up very well, but they’ve pleasantly surprised me in just how nicely they please my more matured taste.
This one is undoubtedly the best of the first three, unless perhaps you were more taken with the atmosphere of The Gunslinger (judging by Goodreaders most people weren’t, though I quite liked it). It combines the best of both preceding books: the quest from Gunslinger and the wonderful characters from The Drawing of the Three, plus the reunification (through a “drawing”!) with the only other character of import, Jake. Furthermore, it fleshes out the actual purpose of what they’re doing and the fascinating, demented world in which they must do it.
Best of all is that King’s smothering narration is largely overshadowed by the story itself, especially in the 2nd half. It seems that when there is less “hanging out” between the characters, when there is actually something for them to do, it’s more difficult for King to irritate you with his terrible dialogue and overly-cutesy mannerisms and references (see my review for Drawing if you’re interested in an elaboration of this problem). They’re still there of course, but largely consigned to the first half when less is happening.
Unfortunately, Eddie is burdened with the brunt of these irritating comments, making him the most consistently annoying member of our ka-tet (though Susannah makes a valiant last dash in the finale when she channels the terrible Detta Walker for a couple of pages). An example of Eddie (King) being annoying and completely unrealistic is when he’s running from a 70-foot bear, climbs a tree, and somehow has a spare second or two to glibly think to himself, “Top of the world, Ma.”
It’s impossible not to see straight through Eddie to King in moments like these, especially if you’ve read a lot of him. This happens at other points too, for example with Roland’s and Mid-Worlders’ anachronistic cursing, and then with Blaine’s “See you later alligator. . .” In other words, King’s voice distracts (and detracts) from the story, which is by far the worst thing about this series once past Gunslinger.
But really, once you can get past that — and that happened for me midway through this book — you are home free for simply one of the best epic fantasy adventures ever written. It’s so damn inventive, not that I think King came up with all this himself, but that he effectively integrates all of this extant literature and mythology — Arthurian, Judeo-Christian, Jungian, Robert Browning, etc. — into a mostly cohesive whole, and bestows upon it a tremendous profundity and pathos. His characters — Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, Oy, Martin/Walter, Blaine — are archetypal and unforgettable, and not many authors can claim creative dibs on such personas.
I consider this the quintessential North-American fantasy series, and I believe it will be remembered as such. It’s what Tolkien’s was for Britain. And if it’s not as tasteful as Tolkien, if it’s a little cruder and sillier, well maybe we need to look in the mirror as a country, because this is what our most famous, bestest-selling author has come up with, and it has resonated fantastically with millions of people. I love it, warts and all, and I can’t wait to finish it for the first time (I’ve only ever made it through Book V, back before the last two were released). I don’t even think King’s hamming will be able to ruin it.