Tuesday, October 28, 2014

From A Buick 8


                    Length is a hard thing to gauge when writing. I've written several short stories that spun wildly out of control and made me want to see how they'd be in book length, but unfortunately couldn't be due to space requirements. I've also written several book ideas that would be better as single stories, but didn't know how to compress the initial idea. I will say this: Constantly failing at fiction writing has done nothing but teach me how to be a better writer, and if I could ever find a way to make that knowledge useful, believe me, I would. It's also made me great at pointing out where others could be better writers, though I wouldn't be so presumptuous to believe that anyone would actually listen to the ramblings of some idiot with a blog. But length is a difficult thing to figure out.

                          Stephen King is someone who does not particularly believe that the writer is in control of their work, and while I agree with him on principle-- you can't make a work do what you want, even if (as internet media critics constantly complain) everything is stuff you make up-- it doesn't happen that way. Writing is not a completely conscious process. However, while this is true, sometimes it means he writes a short story that is somehow three hundred and fifty pages long because he wants everything to get out of his head just right, and it's rumored that his work has become a lot looser over the past several years (I don't completely see it, but that's me). Which brings us to From A Buick 8.

                      From A Buick 8 is an interesting book, and it has several scenes that are very vivid and frightening. But I feel like it could have been a short story or a novella rather than a full blown-out novel. Maybe something to go through the small press circuit or put into a story collection than something to actually become a whole novel. It feels a little elongated, a little too slow-burning, and while the point might not be the supernatural events that happen around these men, the idea could have been conveyed in a short story. King did just that several times over, and while the King of now might not be the King who wrote "It Grows On You" or "Jerusalem's Lot" or "Dedication", I know Big Steve can still write a good story. So get this one from the library if you want, but I'd suggest if you want a good, slow-burning story, you go to the short collections or find another book

More, as always, below. 

"We killed a thinking being. That's murder."
- Shirley

                    Pennsylvania State Police Troop D resides in Statler, Pennsylvania. Life more or less remains unchanged for the men and woman of Troop D, with them attending to all the details of Statler life and the roads around it. It's a quiet life, until one night a gas station attendant calls in about a strange man abandoning a car in his gas station. The examining officers, Ennis Rafferty and Curtis Wilcox, find the car a strange curiosity, a '50s-era Buick Roadmaster with some modifications that definitely don't belong on a '50s-era Buick Roadmaster. Stuff like wood paneling. Wrong number of portholes. Closer examination finds that the engine isn't even supposed to work the way it's wired-- all the sparkplugs and the engine just go in a loop without connecting to anything else. The weirdness only intensifies when Curt Wilcox gets into the Buick and sits behind the wheel, only to feel "something coming" and the undeniable feeling of dread. This is followed by a strange humming noise. A few minutes later, Ennis Rafferty has vanished into thin air, and the Buick is taken into Troop D's barracks, to be put out in a shed, because it's far too dangerous to let out into the public. 

But the story doesn't even begin there.

                     No, the story starts when that gas station attendant accidentally runs Curt Wilcox down years later, and his son Ned comes looking for his father's friends, to find out what kind of man his father truly was. The troopers take Ned in, and eventually, Ned finds an intact '50s-era Buick Roadmaster in one of the sheds out on the troop's property. And, slowly, Troop D decides to tell him a story about how they found the Buick, and what happened with it in their shed. And what came out of the car, and how the car was prone to mysterious "lightquakes", and what, exactly, lives in the shed and only looks like a car...

                     But whatever it is, whatever's out in the shed, "taking in a little of our world, and breathing out a little more of its own", isn't exactly asleep this whole time, and it has its own plans. Plans that involve Ned Wilcox. Plans that would be dangerous to not only Ned, but to the entire troop...

                        Okay, first things first, while I don't necessarily agree with the story, I agree with the way it's told. The framing device goes like this: Curt Wilcox is run over by a Buick driven by Brad Lefferts, who has become something of a drunk. His son, Ned, comes to Troop D to find out what his father was like from the people who knew him best. They tell him stories and get him a job doing maintenance on the Troop D barracks. As Ned slowly becomes part of Troop D, he discovers the cherry-condition Buick over in one of the maintenance sheds. Sandy, the trooper acting kind of as a narrator and Ned's supervisor, tells him a little about it, but seems uneasy about the temperature inside the shed. When Ned presses further, Sandy begins telling him the story. The narrative moves back and forth between "Now" and "Then" as the various members of Troop D tell stories, almost ghost stories, about their experiences with the mysterious Buick in their storage shed. 

                         Because the stories are being told to Ned, a lot of them gravitate around Curt Wilcox, making him something of a central character. It also allows for a certain narrative unreliability about the stories, as the point of view shifts between each story. Overall, this kind of narrative structure works for the book more than it doesn't, but it brings up two very important and troubling issues with the story. 

                       First, and most importantly, it brings me back to the short-story/novella kind of thing. The book could have worked as a series of stories connected by the Buick without the framing device as much, setting up the frame at the beginning of the story as "now", and then keeping everything else as "then". The constant cutting back and forth could have been kept to interlude-type structures, a structure King has used before with great success in It and The Talisman, two books that blow From A Buick out of the water in terms of narrative. It even utilizes the slow-burning mundane narrative, though to a less subtle, Lynchian approach than in Buick

                      That is one thing Buick has going for it, it's a very subtle and surreal kind of horror based on a certain lack of context. Apart from the Buick, there's not much else horrifying to the story, and since Troop D is savvy enough to leave the Buick in the shed and not let anyone else really see it, the story becomes more about the men and woman who work at the PSP barracks than the actual horror. It makes it that much more unnerving when the Buick starts one of its "lightquakes" and something pops out of it, because it disrupts the context that Stephen King works for chapters to build. Also, the very mundane way most of it's treated in the "Now" parts helps to highlight the horror and make it more unsettling. Because the reader starts to go "Why is all of this normal?! What is wrong with you people?!"

                      The second issue the book highlights, though, is exactly how samey most of the narrative voices are. In the sections where the men of Troop D are narrating, a lot of them sound similar to Sandy to the point where I was wondering just who was talking. The standout was Arky, one of the older Troop D members, who had a hard-to-place accent and talked with a more distinctive voice. The "Then" sections are also all written in third-person omniscient narration, which of course really makes it hard to parse and remember whose story it is. So overall, it just becomes a mess. 

                     And, when that mess goes absolutely nowhere, it makes it more heartbreakingly obvious that this could have been a short story or a novella. King knocks it out of the park with those, he even has a point where it could end when one of the troopers finally realizes that Ned means to try and kill the Buick, and the Buick means to try and kill Ned where the story could end on an ambiguous note. I'm not saying it should end there, but the scene would provide nice closure in the short story I keep seeing in my head. Maybe that's the issue-- that I keep seeing this other book in my head in a version of what I call the "Ghost Work Problem", namely when a tighter, more complete work is superimposed over the work that actually exists. 

                       In the end, it's not a bad book, it's just more a book I can't quite get behind. Maybe the problem's with me, maybe it's with the book. Either way, I'd say this one is one you're going to want to take out of the library. It's an interesting structural exercise, and a way to tell a story that focuses on the tale, rather than the unsettling event at the center of it. So take it out from the library. Give it a spin in those slow reading months. You might find more than I tell you. You might find less. Either way, it's just interesting enough to offer some curiosity, and that's really all it needs to be.

The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Kirilanovich

I go on my Month of Long Books to bring you some reviews out of deadline. See you in December!

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