‘Mr. Mercedes:’ Stephen King’s Middle America
By Stephen King
Scribner, June 2014
448 pages, $30
One of the many things you can say in Stephen King’s favor is that he has never forgotten where he came from.
The opening scene in “Mr. Mercedes” depicts one of those deadly accurate King looks into the lives of lower-middle-class Americans falling step by step into wretched poverty through no fault of their own. They are standing on a practically endless line at 3 o’clock on a misty Midwest morning in 2009, waiting to apply for jobs most of them won’t get. They are tired. Some of them are grouchy. Most of them are painfully aware of their circumstances. Many of them, and one in particular, are kind. They all feel a general helplessness in the face of the massive economic meltdown that brutalized them and enriched the people (the “perks”?) who perpetrated it. Sound familiar?
Little do they know that the worst, of course, is yet to come. But this scene feels so accurate to reality because Stephen King for six decades has maintained vivid recollections of that exact life, in which he grew up himself just east of Lewiston. I call that a lifelong act of conscience. This book, whatever other pop-culture categories it fits neatly into, is about suffering — the people who try to alleviate it and the people who try to intensify it. Good and evil, let’s say.
The good guy is a retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who at the outset is suffering from soul-scorching emptiness. The bad guy is a self-alienated computer nerd, Brady Hartsfield, who has a multidimensionally sordid relationship with his drunken mother. Hodges’ life has ground to a halt, and Hartsfield’s got mutilated when he was a child. Their paths cross after a bizarre — yet, in 21st century America, totally believable — massacre involving an expensive Mercedes Benz.
The tales of their two lives are not just perfunctory backstory. While “Mr. Mercedes” is a straight-up crime novel with a fully involved plot topping the twists and turns of the best “CSI” episodes, the story’s forward motion is driven by Hartsfield’s endless twisted ruminations and fantasies and by Hodges’ complicated retired-cop inner life. The main plot is driven by their complex emotional necessities.
Along the way, we encounter a love interest, bomb-making materials, computer madness, scenes of “Blue Velvet”-like light and dark contrasts, and vintage King minor characters: a wife psychically decimated by her husband’s sudden death; a black teenager with everything to lose; a rather vocal lesbian; a neurotic, but likeable, daughter with a domineering, and unlikeable, mother; tough, good-natured cops; and wealth, poverty and the slippery in-between. There is also a nose-tweaking kind of anti-PC anti-racism that few other writers can throw at you in such successful good conscience.
All of this — if I read the subtexts right — is coming from Stephen King’s vast mental garage of firsthand information about the bewildering layers of the American middle classes. It’s colored by a deep compassion for the suffering — and sheer bad luck — of fundamentally well-meaning people. Some of them, like Hodges, seek daylight. Others, like Brady Hartsfield, sink downward to darkness on extended wings trying to take everybody else with them. And maybe that brings us back to the economic crash of 2008, which lurks just under the story’s whole horizon. Or maybe not.
Maybe it’s just a good old-fashioned crime novel following in the footsteps of James M. Cain, with the well-drawn characters and force-field forward motion (if a bit slower than usual) that characterize practically all of Stephen King’s books. If you like his books, you’ll like this one. And if you don’t like his books, this one — stripped of the supernatural — might engage you anyway.
Note on the Mercedes
The Mercedes Benz in the novel “Mr. Mercedes” is a gray, late-model SL500. It is not a sky-blue, 1981 240D.
This came as a relief to me, personally. In the mid- to late- 2000s, I used to trundle through certain Bangor neighborhoods in the 240D on my way to and from a newsroom and mundane destinations on Union Street. The 240D was, if not an Edsel, at least a noticeable vehicle because of its age, make, color and distinctive rust patterns. It died of a rotten undercarriage about three years ago.
About two years ago I started chipping away at a memoir involving this car and my mostly off-radar literary life in Maine. It centered around an imagination of the life of an on-radar writer living in Bangor. It was never intended to haunt anyplace except my and a few friends’ computers.
As luck, good or bad, would have it, my friend Chris Peary, a Bangor artist, asked me to submit something about life in the post-postmodern world for the next installment of his comics, art and literature publication, “Detritus.” After some internal debate, I decided his small circle of readers might get a kick out of my recollections, etc. of life on Grub Street, Maine, so I sent him the memoir.
While Detritus No. 2 was in production this spring, I discovered the next novel fast approaching on radar by Stephen King was titled “Mr. Mercedes.” Maybe you can understand that for a couple of months, I was feeling kind of nervous. (Or maybe you can’t, and that would be understandable, too.) But where did the idea for that title come from? And how sinister did my trundling 240D really seem? Then I got to read “Mr. Mercedes” and immediately learned, to my relief, that the Mercedes was gray and flashy, not old and lurking.
In the end, the SL500 turns blue, though. And so I closed the book feeling the least bit uneasy. Again.
Curiosity-seekers may visit www.detrituspress.com for more information.
Off Radar appears in the Kennebec Journal
and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening section. Please send news of Maine books and literary events to Dana Wilde at [email protected].