STEPHEN KING — FROM A BUICK 8–2002
This book is about a car as is written on the cover, but in fact, it is not about a car at all, since it is not a car, though we do not know what it is and we will never know anyway. What is important though in Stephen King’s work is the use of cars in many novels and short stories. In fact, we could find a car, more or less benevolent or malevolent, in most stories, most novels. But let me quote a few, only a few: Trucks, 1973; Cujo, 1981; Christine, 1983; Pet Sematary, 1983; Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut, 1984; Maximum Overdrive, film 1986; Riding The Bullet, 2000; From A Buick 8, 2002; The Bill Hodges Trilogy with Mr. Mercedes, 2014, Finders Keepers, 2015, and End of Watch, 2016. Cars have also been dramatic in Stephen King’s life since, in June 1999, a certain Smith’s blue Dodge caravan crashed into Stephen King, who was out for a walk, with such force that the author’s head smashed the windscreen. As King himself wrote in The Observer one year later, the writer was lucky to survive.
This present novel is more in the line of some kind of science fiction Stephen King has used a few times with some kind of extra-terrestrial universe that is trying to invade our world or trying to hunt some goodies in our world. Let’s say the Buick 8 is like a door or a mouth between that other dimensional universe and us. But this is probably the least important element. What is fundamental is the reactions people are developing in the story, and by people, we only mean Pennsylvania State Troopers who recuperated the “car” and keep it in some shed behind the barracks, hidden away, official non-existent and thus preventing any knowledge outside but also all possible real security or real treatment. They cannot even try to destroy it since they cannot ask any help from anyone or any service since the car has never existed for real. That produces a self-contained and totally isolated military or paramilitary unit in a community that absolutely ignores the secret: apparently it is clear State Troopers can keep a secret.
But when we have said this, there is nothing else to say about it. We have to look at other elements and patterns in the book.
First we have a story concerning a father and a son. The father, Curtis Wilcox, is in fact killed at the very beginning of the book in 2001 or 2002. And the son, Ned Wilcox, is asking about his father during his summer job with the PSP group in which his father had spent all his life. It is when cleaning the windows of a shed that he sees the Buick in the shed for the first time and his curiosity will kill the cat or at least should kill the cat. But as Curtis Wilcox used to add satisfaction brought it back. At this level this pattern is so common in Stephen King that we must wonder why he is so obsessed by sons, and at times a few daughters, and their relationships with their parents, and at times mothers only. And yet Stephen King is in his older age, so he deals with another theme he had dealt with earlier but with younger sons. The son is attracted by an older man, a father substitute because he does not have a father for any reason, here accidental death. But here it is more seen and told from the point of view of the older man, Sandy, the Sergeant Commanding of the group, who is attracted by the son, by Ned, as if he could be his own, as if he could be his substitute father since he was Ned’s father’s friend. And Ned wants to know about the car and the car is entirely connected from beginning to end to his father, and the Troopers and other personnel decide to tell what has to be told.
The American society is a patriarchy and the domination of males and father figures is so absolute that sexual harassment against women is seen and lived as a revolution when it is finally disclosed and revealed. Stephen King is not thinking or writing along that line and he manages to have a woman among these men, Shirley, the Police Communications officer, and this woman is what he calls her “a true American girl” who had been married for a short stint of time after high school but quickly became an unmarried woman living alone with two cats. And that’s a cliché. But she is an extremely nice woman using some feminine charm half way between sex appeal and motherly kindness. One other woman is a harpy who is haunting the place asking for her brother who just disappeared in conditions the Troopers can’t tell since he was swallowed by the “car.” Apart from these two, women are just plain marginal, minimal, practically absent. Here Stephen King is showing a de facto all-men community and he expertly avoids all the traps of such a group of people who could easily be chauvinistic about their masculinity, and we know what that means. The total concentration on the surreal car enables the author to avoid such “defects.”
The storytelling is also amazing. It is mostly in the first person but each chapter or nearly is told by one different character. Some episodes are told all by one narrator, but some episodes are told by multiple narrators. This gives some dynamism to the story since we constantly shift from one point of view to another and Shirley also takes part, though marginally. The storytelling also alternates short sections on NOW and long sections on THEN. This then is not one single time, but it is several slices of the past starting in 1979 and ending in 2001–2002, and the end is LATER, in fact in 2005–2006, hence the future of the publication date. This LATER provides a very dramatic ending though it is also very empathetic and sentimental, in a somber shade of dark. The way Stephen King manages his fictional time is magisterial and brilliant. Once or twice we get trapped and yet that is nothing but a shallow wrinkle on the surface of the story.
I will not even try to answer what this Buick is, apart from a metaphor of the American society and their cars: cars are nothing but ravenous and rapacious monsters that are running after humans and trying to devour them alive and kill them all: it is so nice on the other side of this world, on the side where you end up torn up, minced, blended and rotting. Death is our sole and unique end: life is fatal and cars are the direct agent of death that takes away all those who are nearly dead and buries down under all those who have just passed away or who have been forgotten for a small suspended time.
Stephen King explores the reactions of people in front of a monstrous and unexplained being that arrives among them without any warning or explanation. The beings this car sends into our world are of all sorts but they die very fast probably because of our atmosphere. But one of these beings is different and in spite of the absence of common communication or common understanding, it is clear the reaction of the dog and the people present is only the desire, the urge, the impulse to kill the ET being, and yet Shirley lives that final killing and the attitude and shrieks the ET being shows and utters as being fear and pleading, pleading for survival. But to make the point unacceptable, the first individual that attacked this being was the dog and in the end, the dog dies poisoned by the ET being and burning from inside. The death of the dog is like the justification of the death of the ET being. I find that slightly cynical. These ET beings are shown as aggressive and invasive, and from the very start one Trooper disappeared and was clearly implied to have been swallowed alive by the car. So what can you expect? How can you even imagine one actor in this grotesque story could ever think these ET beings are maybe able to think and have some feelings even if it is only fear and begging for compassion or commiseration.
I am not even sure these beings can experience fear per se. Maybe only the imminent end that is coming. These beings seem to be some intelligent form of life that has evolved from bugs, from bats, from vegetal items but have not reached any level that could compare with our own species. And yet how could an intelligent species who can travel from one universe to another be only hunters and gatherers who can only take possession of everything containing proteins around them in a world that is not theirs. They are non-human hunter-gatherers who in a way or another have invented a way to travel from one world to another, from one level of life to another, from one universe to another. It sounds grotesque as I have already said.
But does the story help us appreciate and love humans? I am not entirely sure because these humans seem to be satisfied to be limited to a world that has no future whatsoever except retiring and slowly dying with a pension till death us part from it. Ot if you retire in a bad alcoholic state, you will end up killing yourself by driving off a bridge That’s what is mostly missing in Stephen King. His characters and his universes have no future, no creative time to come, no salvation. We are doomed and have been deemed to go on living in misery, humdrum satisfaction and total lack of hope. These characters cannot say “Yes we can” because no one can do nothing against this fate, this curse. Ned is admitted to a good college with a scholarship and yet he drops out and joins the Troopers. In fact, the Buick 8 becomes the haunting fetish that keeps everyone in the know locked up and tied up to this minuscule place. Imagine this community if by any chance some immigrant from some foreign Muslim country arrived tomorrow. He or she would be the new and recent model a living Buick 8. How could Stephen King in 2002 imagine what America was to be becoming under the influence of the worst jingoist ever elected president of anything in the world?
But you will like the style. Stephen King is the real King of the linguistic road of our imagination.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU