Stephen King is, in a way, the Bill Clinton of popular literature. You want to kick him, hard, for all the things he does wrong, for promises betrayed and the frequent displays of bad faith and cheesy sentimentality, and yet then he will stop and say something real in a voice that compels attention, especially at funerals. Both of them do good funerals. The heart of this flawed yet powerful book comes in a speech at a funeral. "I loathe and despise my generation . . . We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead we settled for designer jeans, two tickets to Mariah Carey at Radio City Music Hall, frequent flier miles, James Cameron's Titanic and retirement portfolios . . .You know the price of selling out the future, Sully-John? You can never really leave the past." Sentimental, phoney, yet somehow truer than poetry or wisdom; moan as much as you like about what it means to have King as the voice of a generation, you've got to love the guy.
King, in recent years, has increasingly engaged his tales of the macabre with social issues. His serial novel The Green Mile was, in its mad way, an effective discussion of capital punishment, and in Hearts of Atlantis, a sequence of five linked stories, he tackles Vietnam and its legacy for his generation of American men and women. When King describes incidents of the war in flashback, he can be derivative, although his understanding of the muddle, fear and ill-temper that are much of the source of atrocity is sound enough.
Bill Shearman has acquired what is simultaneously a psychotic compulsion, a means of expiation and a profitable trade; every day he goes to the office and emerges as the blind beggar he might have become. "Blind Willie" is a fine story because King just shows us this man and what he has made of his life, without allowing us to take a view. Both mad and sane, both a fraud and real, Bill is American manhood itself. In "Why we're in Vietnam", Sully, a recurring presence, limps through life haunted by a murdered old woman. She is not even an angry ghost; merely a presence in his life, like the ache from his partly missing genitals.
The longest, and most problematic, section is the opening "Low Men in Yellow Coats", an account of the childhoods of Sully, Carol and their best friend Billy, whose life went wrong. Billy learns hard lessons about adults and that childhood is not a safe place. His mother lies about his dead father, and is deceived and abused by her boss. His childhood is splendidly recreated. But Billy is not brave enough to save Ted, the upstairs lodger, who has taught him to love good books.
Far better is "Hearts in Atlantis", which is about those who did not go to war - in this instance, a group of college students who risk their scholarships and their deferments to play obsessive all-night card games. Pete loses Carol, the book's notional heroine, to extremism, the Weather Underground terrorist group and the "most wanted" list. This is King at his finest, evoking the atmosphere of cigarette smoke, bad college meals and all-night Bogart shows at the local cinema. Where he is at his weakest, in some ways, is in what is absent from the book: we needed to see Carol's story through her own eyes.