Wizard and Glass

by Stephen King (1997)

9/10

I say the following at the risk of sounding super pretentious and judgmental: I think haters of this book are totally missing the point. That’s because this book contains the story of how Roland meets the Dark Tower. I’ll repeat that just in case it didn’t sink in:

THIS BOOK IS THE STORY OF HOW ROLAND MEETS THE DARK TOWER.

When described like that it seems kind of important, right? I mean, given that the series is called The Dark Tower and up until this entry we have only a vague notion of what drives Roland toward it. But when you reorient yourself to the importance of this story, when you realize that the “flashback” is actually the main attraction here, and the “quest” we’ve come to love is actually just an envelope, the book quickly becomes at least one of the best in the series, if not the outright champion.

I remember being disappointed the first time I read this — I was one of those who had to wait 6 years between Waste Lands and this. But re-reading it almost twenty years (!) later, my appreciation has grown immensely. It builds nicely on where we’ve already been by fleshing out the defining event in Roland’s young life. It’s a little jarring at the beginning of the flashback — you could accurately complain that it disrupts the momentum that Books 2 & 3 gathered so effectively — but by the end it has added an incredible richness to the saga, such that while it’s not the most consistently entertaining volume of the series (that’s The Waste Lands IMO, see my review), it may actually be the best.

One of the best things this has going for it is that it takes place largely in Roland’s before-things-moved-on Mid-World. That means we are spared Eddie’s/King’s incessant verbal diarrhea, where King thinks he’s being cute but is really marring the otherwise epic tone of the story. Unfortunately (because I like him as a character, I really do), by avoiding Eddie the book avoids one of the two major flaws of Books 2 & 3 (I describe this more explicitly in my Drawing of the Three review).

The other major flaw of the series so far — the bloat — is still present here, and knowing King it’s here to stay. I’m sorry but almost nobody can pull off 600+ pages of novel, not now and never before.  I get that he wants to make the world as vivid as possible, but there’s a sweet spot past which more detail just becomes tedious and detracts from the story. Here there’s at least 100 pages that could have been trimmed to gain more focus and better pacing. The chief example that comes to mind is the 50-some pages following their exit from Blaine and before the heart of the story begins. This could have easily been cut by 20-30 pages if not more. Other minor examples are the various atmospheric touches King provides toward the end of the novel about people becoming more wicked. King appears pathologically obsessed with providing details about even the most minor of characters. There’s probably another 20 pages to save between those and the frequent descriptions of the town’s climate and festival preparations.

My only other complaint is that the finale veers into the ridiculous. I would have preferred more subtlety in the allusions to a very famous fantasy story, but that’s mostly a personal preference.  (*******SPOILERS FOLLOW)  Adding to the ridiculousness was (*******SPOILERS FOLLOW******) the cartoonish behavior of the Tick Tock Man, a great villain from the last book who is totally wasted here (both literally and narratively).  The impression I get is that while writing the end of Book 3 King imagined that Tick Tock could play a major antagonistic role in the 4th book, only to get there years later and realize the story didn’t need more drama.  Also, Walter’s apparent omnipotence is beginning to confuse me, as it seems like he’s magical enough to simply kill one or all of the ka-tet; should he so choose.  That he doesn’t is puzzling, but I imagine (hope?) this gets explained later on.  (END SPOILERS*******)

Neither of these problems are dealbreakers, and once you get past them, much like in the rest of the series up to this one, you are left with the magnificence of the epic story and these heart-wrenching characters. I know it may sound ludicrous, but I don’t think I’ve ever loved a literary character as I love Roland and both of his ka-tets.  War and Peace‘s Natasha, Bezukhov and Prince Volkonsky are the only others that come close — and yes I already said I know how ludicrous it is to put Stephen King in the same company as Tolstoy. The fact remains though: it is utterly amazing how King, in the middle of a highly engaging series, introduces brand new characters like Susan, Cuthbert, Alain and even Sheemie, and then by the end of the book has me hanging on their every pain and pleasure. How he breaks my heart.

I mean seriously, isn’t King just a “popular fiction” guy? Are writers like those supposed to devastate you? Are they supposed to rip your heart out and give you emotional chills? Are they supposed to have you thinking about their characters as you fall asleep, suffering over their travails and hoping they pull through? I seriously never do this. Ever. Except for Dark Tower.

For all of his juvenile crudity, King is able to tap into something psychological that raises him above any other mass market author, and most other authors period. I’m not sure it’s totally intentional either, it’s sort of like he just channels these amazingly archetypal characters and scenarios from somewhere out in Jung’s ether. But I know for sure it’s beautiful and awesomely impressive, and I know for sure I can’t get enough of it. The climax of this devastation occurs on page 605 (in my edition), just after Roland has looked into the glass (vague-ish spoilers but not really):

. . . Inside the ball, I was given a choice: Susan, and my life as her husband and father of the child she now carries. . . or the Tower.” Roland wiped his face with a shaking hand. “I would choose Susan in an instant, if not for one thing: the Tower is crumbling, and if it falls, everything we know will be swept away. There will be chaos beyond our imagining. We must go. . . and we will go.” Above his young and unlined cheeks, below his young and unlined brow, were the ancient killer’s eyes that Eddie Dean would first glimpse in the mirror of an airliner’s bathroom. But now they swam with childish tears.

There was nothing childish in his voice, however.

“I choose the Tower. I must. Let her live a good life and long with someone else — she will, in time. As for me, I choose the Tower.”

I read fast, a bad habit that often includes skimming when it’s setting or other boring descriptions. But this stopped me cold in my tracks. I read it and was about to move right on to the next section, as always, but almost against my will it yanked my eyes back to the top and I had to read it again, and then again. It’s just crushing. . . not only is it Roland’s introduction to the Dark Tower, something we know he’s obsessed with decades later but has literally never thought of by this point. But it’s also simultaneously the explanation and culmination of everything Roland has been doing the whole series, of everything that has made him what he is. It crystalizes the entire story, all distilled into a single, massive, hammer-blow of a passage. And of course it breaks your heart; one could weep for this 14 year-old boy and his impossible choice.

I’ll stop here because I’m just babbling at this point, and I even forgot to mention another huge strength of the novel which is its unforgettable, extremely well-drawn villains in Rhea of the Coos and Eldred Jonas (who would have to be played by Sam Elliot, right?).  But yeah this is probably my favorite of the series so far, even despite its terribly awkward title.  Am I the only one who can’t think of it without wanting to make it “Wizards”?

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