Review of Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Scribner 1999 528 pp. 28.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Stephen King's 528-page, horror-free Hearts of Atlantis has arrived with a characteristic thunk. Hearts seeks to evoke the nostalgic glow of the Sixties without summoning up the treacly self-regard with which Boomers are known to treat their youth. Gratifyingly, King largely succeeds.

"We' re the generation that invented Super Mario Brothers, the ATV, laser missile-guidance systems, and crack cocaine. We discovered Richard Simmons, Scott Peck, and Martha Stewart Living. Our idea of a major lifestyle change is buying a dog. The girls who burned their bras now buy their lingerie from Victoria' s Secret and the boys who [fornicated] fearlessly for peace are now fat guys who sit in front of their computer screens late at night, [looking] at pictures of naked eighteen-year-olds on the Internet. That's us, brother, we like to watch. Movies, video games, live car-chase footage, fistfights on The Jerry Springer Show , Mark McGwire, World Federation Wrestling, impeachment hearings, we don't care, we just like to watch. But there was a time . . . "

There was a time when we listened to "Donovan Leitch singing his sweet and stupid song about the continent of Atlantis." King invokes this buried Atlantis of our past through five stories of decreasing length, connected by a revolving set of characters. We begin in April 1960 in Harwich, Connecticut, with a novel-length account of eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield, and end with a fourteen-page account of two characters meeting after a funeral in 1999. Structurally, then, the book artfully argues for the increasing importance of memory as we get older and, with any dumb luck, mature.

Bobby Garfield is an only child saddled with a loathsome mother, whose puckered mouth "made him think of a purse she had: when you pulled on the drawstrings, the hole in the top got smaller." His young life alters when Ted, a quiet old man, moves in with suitcases which "all looked as if they had been kicked here from California by someone in a bad mood." Ted will prove to be more than he seems, but initially he introduces Bobby to the magic of books.

Bobby also experiences his first romance with the winsome Carol Gerber, and a traumatic scene between Ted, Bobby, and Carol at the climax of the first story reverberates throughout the lives of the other characters.

We move on to 1966, to college in Maine, where we are introduced to Pete Riley, who records that "Harvey Brundage was the first person every to say 'Wow, man, bummer!' in my presence." He meets Carol Gerber, and we witness how their lives are transformed by the distant horror of the Vietnam War. Central to Pete's experience, however, is not war, but cards-Hearts to be specific. Betting on Hearts in the freshman dorm became such an obsession that many of the students lost all their money, which meant they couldn't pay tuition, which meant they had to drop out, which meant they were drafted, which meant that they found themselves being shelled and maimed by angry invisible Asians, all on account of a card game in Maine.

The subsequent stories record the aftermath of the war for those who opposed it and those who fought in it. For most of the characters, "Reagan is king of America, stocks and bonds have turned to gold, the death penalty is back in vogue. Life is good." Yet, economics cannot save them from advancing age or bad habits, and King supplies us with one of the most spectacular descriptions of an unexpected heart attack since Frank Dambar's in James Wilcox's Kind of Rich.

"Most of us don' t say much about those years now, not because we don't remember them but because the language which we spoke back then has been lost. When I try to talk about the sixties--when I even try to think about them--I am overcome by horror and hilarity." In Hearts of Atlantis King has almost completely eschewed the supernatural to give us a portrait of aging Boomers that avoids embarrassment. You might even try passing this one along to your kids. Hail Atlantis!