“Drunken Fireworks”

By Stephen King

Read by Tim Sample

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2015

CD $14.99, digital download, $9.99

In an interview somewhere — I can’t remember if I read it or listened to it — Stephen King tells a story about audiobooks. When his kids were small, he paid them to record books on cassette tapes. This killed three or four birds with one stone. It enabled him to listen to books, which he said he greatly enjoyed doing; it got the kids reading; it provided them with some scratch and some meaningful responsibility; and it gave him something pleasant to do on long drives to places like Boston and New York where people were waiting to fill his bank accounts up with money.

After the kids grew up (and a couple of them became novelists themselves), King — never one to turn down a media experiment — recorded several of his own books for CDs.

Now I will reveal that for about 10 years, I have done most of my reading by listening to CDs and MP3s. Whether listening to a book is the same as “reading” the book is a matter people want to debate with me all the time. I can tell you, from experience and professional authority, that listening does equal reading. But, of course, it’s different.

One reason listening is the same as “reading” is that both modes of ingestion, so to speak, provide you with the same basic elements — plot, characters, setting, theme, etc. If you read fast, like an airplane speeding along 50 feet above the water, that’s about all you get, anyway. If you go by boat right on the waves and chop itself, you get not only the basics of the story but also the sound in your mind of the words, sentences and syntax of the voice that’s telling the story.

Listening to a book is the slow boat kind of reading, and it has advantages and disadvantages that have to do with the narrator. No narrator ever speaks all the sentences the same way you would in your mind, so you’re hearing a different version of the story than you do just looking at pages. But a skillful narrator can elicit insights into scenes, thoughts and jokes that you wouldn’t have picked up silently. A poor narrator can obscure what’s going on, and I admit, some narrators have wrecked books for me. One example of that happening was King’s novel “Under the Dome,” which I just quit listening to. But some of my most enjoyable book-listening experiences were “Bag of Bones” and “Needful Things” — read by the author, King, himself in a voice that gives you the shape and rhythm of what they’re supposed to sound like.

That’s a key point: Good books sound like something. All literature was originally spoken onto the air, like music. Literature is not just ideas abstracted into silence, but words incarnate.

So what about “Drunken Fireworks”? Well, it’s a short novel by King that, for now, you can only listen to. A backwoods Maine family with a camp on a lake gets into a Fourth of July fireworks competition with their well-to-do summer neighbors from Rhode Island. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it is hilarious. Like every work of fiction by King, it’s superbly true to the twists and turns of the characters, and their deep-Maine ironies are embedded right into the speech of Alden McCausland, who’s telling the story of the fireworks to local law enforcement.

Now, King is adept with Maine’s spoken rhythms, syntax and peculiar figurations, so this story will be good reading when it comes into print. But the narration by Maine’s best-known character comic, Tim Sample, who grew up in Boothbay Harbor, is just scarily good. He blows a little heavy on the backwoods accent, but still, it’s absolutely true to the sound of our talk. The crucial ironic lines are pronounced with total tonal precision. Nowhere in the performing arts will you hear the down-Maine articulation of the F word more accurately delivered than in this recording. He hits with perfect pitch the slightly distended and flattened vowel in words like “dusk” and “up” that is universally overlooked by actors from away. He knows all the tonal nuances of good-humored exasperation in our everyday ejaculations like “Christ on a bike.”

This is one work of fiction that will be a good read in silence, but is mightily enhanced by this narration. It provides total validation of my own love of audiobooks, the sense that King still knows the Maine backwoods all too well, and the idea that listening does, indeed, equal reading.

“Drunken Fireworks” is available online, and it will appear in print this November in King’s next collection of short fiction, “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.”

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].