SUMMARY: (3 of 5 stars) I picked this one up after reading the description of it from Stephen King himself in On Writing. The basic idea was to create a sympathetic political assassin. The thing is: a lot of King’s descriptions of the politician reminded me a lot of today’s political climate and Trump. Trump is no where NEAR as evil as the politician in this book, but there were aspects of his campaign that reminded me of Trump. So, I wanted to see how he told this story. His approach is interesting, but I found it ultimately dissatisfying. I understand that this book is a character study, but the ending still felt rushed and wasn’t a sufficient pay off for everything I’d invested in the book up to that point.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
If you woke up from being in a coma for nearly five years with the ability to tell the future… sometimes, what would you do? What would you do if this ability told you that a certain, very evil person was going to become President of the United States of America and then get the country involved in a terrible war with his ineptitude and pure evilness? That’s what this book is about. And John Smith decides that the answer to those question is to kill the evil person before he can get too far down that path to widespread destruction.
It’s kind of like how people are always trying to go back in time to kill baby Hitler.
King’s ability to develop well-rounded, believable, naturalistic characters is in full display in this book. John Smith, Greg Stillson, and Sarah Bracknell nee Hazlett are all very “real” people. One can easily imagine them as people the reader knows in real life. Their thoughts, reactions, motivations, and impulses are all very “organic.” And that’s what King is really good at doing. No complaints there, really except that none of the characters is completely likable. But that’s not really King’s thing and you have to know that going in.
The majority of the book is spent explaining how the characters get to where they are at the climax of the book. For Smith, this means explaining the head trauma and car crash that give rise to his powers and then the development of his ability. For Stillson, this means tracing his path from Bible salesman to town mayor to congressional candidate. For Bracknell, it’s about her early relationship wth Smith and her marriage to another man. All of this is very rich and compelling.
But the climax of the book is short and pat. It read to me as an afterthought, as if it didn’t matter. King does make an effort to build tension, but ultimately it’s all resolved in a single scene that the reader (or perhaps just me) sees coming a million miles away. I knew Smith couldn’t survive, but I knew he would triumph. Which meant that I knew Bracknell would go on with her married life and Stillson would be ruined. Which meant that Smith would not be successful in his attempt at murder — which is good because he didn’t really want to die with blood on his hands — but that something else would happen to ruin Stillson’s political career. A chance photograph by an amateur photographer who showed up a few pages earlier is the very definition of “pat.”
I have to admit, though, that if it had gone on longer, I would have complained about the length of the book. It’s very long compared to the relatively short amount of ground that has to be covered to get to the climax. Even still. This was not my favorite book. It was fine. It had a lot of interesting elements in it. But I could have lived without reading it.
Also, aside from his silly populism, there’s not a lot about Stillson that reminds me of Trump. But I did very much enjoy King’s effort to place the book’s action within the broader political context of the post-Nixon Jimmy Carter era of things.
Affiliate Link: The Dead Zone by Stephen King