Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King (published 1999)
One-sentence summary: A collection of two novellas and three short stories about the Baby Boomer generation, specifically their experiences relating to the Vietnam War and their failure to carry through on the promise and ideals of their generation.
When read: 1999 (new in hardcover)
Why read: I read everything Stephen King writes.
Impressions: This is an unusual collection that mixes genres, throwing in some of the Dark Tower mythos with more mainstream writing. The stories are connected by theme — the failures of the Baby Boomer generation — as well as by recurring characters. The first novella, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” is my favorite because it plays on King’s strengths as a writer. It is about childhood in a small town, set in a time of nostalgia (1960), and while it is a coming-of-age story, it also has a strong sense of fantasy and the supernatural. For more constant King fans, it is strongly connected to the Dark Tower stories.
The other stories are more closely tied to the Vietnam War. The second novella, “Hearts in Atlantis,” made an impression on me because it reminded me of my high school experiences. The characters in the story fritter away their time in college obsessively playing Hearts (for us in high school, it was Spades); however, the stakes are higher for them, because if they flunk out of college, they will be sent to Vietnam. The next two stories, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam,” take place after the Vietnam War, showing its fallout. The second of these was the more memorable for me because of a dreamlike, surreal sequence taking place during a traffic jam that I thought was very well done. The final story, “Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling,” is a bookend to the opening novella and wraps up the recurring characters’ stories.
Current status: I own a first edition hardcover of this book. I definitely intend to reread it someday, perhaps as part of a Dark Tower reread.
- In “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” the importance of reading and the power of stories are pervasive themes. Ted Brautigan gives young Bobby a copy of Lord of the Flies to read. Lord of the Flies was a very influential book on King’s own reading life.
- The men hunting Ted Brautigan remind Bobby of a movie he one saw called The Regulators; this fictional movie plays a pivotal role in the Richard Bachman novel by the same name (Bachman is King’s pseudonym).
- Ted Brautigan reappears in the seventh book in the Dark Tower series, The Dark Tower.
- Another character, Carol Gerber, references a man who “takes in angry, confused kids” in the second story; this reference is most likely to King uber-villain Randall Flagg. In The Stand, Flagg’s back story includes being an agitator during the protest movements of the ’60s.
- The movie adaptation, Hearts in Atlantis, is based only on the opening and closing stories, and all of the Dark Tower references were removed.
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