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Hearts in Atlantis

Past into present

By Tzu-Mainn Chen

Staff Writer

In the author’s note for Hearts In Atlantis, Stephen King writes: “Although it is difficult to believe, the sixties are not fictional; they actually happened.” Well, duh, one might say -- except did they, really? A person who grew up in the eighties and nineties, used to a dependable America, where the burgers are always cheap and the politicians always lie and nothing much ever really seems to change, might not really understand that there was a period of time when everything in America seemed to change. There was a time when the shining optimism left in the aftermath of the Second World War began to tarnish and when almost everybody felt betrayed by America not keeping promises.

It is this period of our history that King chooses to explore with his latest book, a non-horror collection of two novellas and three short stories. Each is separate from the others, yet they share common characters and events. It’s not historical fiction, though; King deftly plays his strengths, letting the life of his characters reflect the times, telling history through people.

The first and strongest story, the novella “Low Men In Yellow Coats,” is set in 1960. It follows the life of an eleven year-old boy, Bobby Garfield, as he lives through a summer that will change his life. When Ted Brautigan moves into the third floor of the house that Bobby and his mother are living in, Bobby strikes up a friendship with the old man. As Bobby grows closer to Ted, however, he learns that his new friend has one point of insanity -- his fear of the otherworldly “low men in yellow coats.”

“Low” here is used in a mental, and not physical, sense, indicating a coarseness and vulgarity of character. Disbelieving, Bobby disregards his friend’s warnings in favor of his own problems, which include a sharp-tongued and domineering mother and a group of older boys who are trying to hunt him down to avenge an imagined slight. But then every aspect of his life flies apart, and Bobby is helpless to stop any of it. The older boys find him, the mother lets loose... and the low men in yellow coats come for Ted Brautigan.

“Low Men In Yellow Coats” is a story about betrayals: those inflicted by others and those inflicted by oneself. In the end, Bobby is forced into a bitter awakening of the fact that his mother is right: life really isn’t fair.

The next novella, the weakest of the collection, is “Hearts In Atlantis,” set six years later, in 1966. In it, a group of college freshmen become hooked on the game of Hearts, gambling a nickel a point and playing despite increasingly poor academic performance, with the shadowing threat of expulsion -- and the draft. “Hearts In Atlantis” details an awakening of another sort -- a group of young boys who become aware that they can’t afford to play simple card games anymore, and that there is a much bigger, much wider game out there in the real world, which they will all be forced to play, whether they like it or not. The story is told with a point-to-point directness, with less complexity than “Low Men In Yellow Coats.” As a result, “Hearts In Atlantis” feels simpler and less powerful.

The last three short stories, “Blind Willie,” “Why We’re In Vietnam,” and “Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling,” all take place in the eighties and nineties, and each relates the fate of one of Bobby’s acquaintances -- and that of Bobby himself. Blind Willie is Willie Shearman, one of the older boys who helped perpetrate a vicious act on one of Bobby’s friends way back in 1960’s. Having lived through Vietnam, Willie is now making penance for that act -- and many others -- in his own strange way. At night, he lives as a rich man, but during the day, he dresses as a blind homeless vet, begging for money, trying to atone for the sins of his past.

“Why We’re In Vietnam” is a ghost story: one of Bobby’s old friends, John Sullivan, is living in the nineties, when the death of one of his old army comrades brings past shades flooding back into his brain. And the final story, “Heavenly Shades Of Night Are Falling,” comes full circle back to Bobby Garfield. In 1999, Bobby, now fifty, comes back to his childhood town, and finds old memories and old friends -- and proof that the past can make way for the present, and that it is possible to move into the future to find redemption.

These five stories weave perfectly into each other; reading them as a whole lets one find a completeness that cannot be found by reading them one by one. As the lives of the characters unfold, one begins to finally understand what it might have been like to get sucked into the black maelstrom that was Vietnam -- and what it might have been like to escape back into the light again.