Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" by Stephen King

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland only stepped off the hiking trail for a moment, just to get away from the argument between her divorced mother and her embittered older brother. That moment is enough, though, for her to lose her way back. The supposed shortcut Trisha takes leads her off into the dense wilderness of the northern Appalachian Trail.

Hours of uneasy wandering turn into days. As Trisha's hunger and her injuries mount, she finds comfort in listening to the radio, where ballplayer Tom Gordon's victories seem to predict her own rescue. But the lost girl begins to believe that she is not alone in the woods. Something is accompanying her, leaving her grisly calling cards, as if to say that she is not only lost... she is hunted.

3 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Stories of horror--taken by themselves--fail to enthrall me. Gore doesn't disturb me, but neither does it hold any appeal. So when I say that Stephen King, the "master of horror," is one of my favorite authors, it may seem a little strange to readers who only know his more gruesome side. But there is another King, one who writes with kindness and familiarity of the heart, for whom fear takes a backseat to compassion.

In King's own words, from Danse Macabre:
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out.
I don't pick up his books lightly. I never know when I'll be smacked in the face with the cheap gory thrills that sell two-thirds of his novels. But when King is writing at his most generous (a beautiful phrase I'm borrowing freely from Jennifer Weiner's remarks on my best-beloved of King's novels, Lisey's Story), then he is sublime. 

In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, King treads a strange line. He never quite crosses into his usual glee over gross-out jump-scares, but nor does he succeed in capturing the simple strength of the human heart as he does in his better, less common novels. This story is instead one of long, slow, but straightforward suspense. 

Trisha's experience shifts between real-world fears and the oogy-boogy weirdness that is never too far away in King's fiction. The real world: will she die of exposure and starvation in the uncharted wilderness? The oogy-boogy: will her hallucinations of the God of the Lost and his ghastly calling cards manifest into that real world, killing her before she can be rescued? One would like to say that Trisha is only hallucinating, but if we accept that King is telling the truth in his third-person omniscient asides about what Trisha's desperate family is doing to find her, then he must also be telling the truth in his weirder remarks about the thing that stalks her.

Speaking frankly, Trisha is not King's greatest character. Her narration suffers from the awkward insincerity so many writers fall into when trying to portray a child. Moments of realistic youthfulness and surprising maturity are undermined by a dozen others of false innocence. 

If Trisha herself fails to engage the reader, though, her adventure will succeed. Survival stories are focused and intense by their very nature. Punctuating her adventures with ballplayer Tom Gordon's rise and fall doubles the suspense, as we not only track Trisha's physical resilience, but also her emotional reserves that keep defeat at bay. Moreover, the decisions Trisha makes--following water, moving in a straight line--are the same ones which the average reader would make in her situation. The fact that all of those "basic wisdom" decisions actually lead her further into danger makes one think quite hard about one's own ability to fare any better--hence the terror elements of the novel.

In the end, though, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon lacks any real staying power. Trisha's journey adds nothing spectacular to the list of "wilderness survival" narratives. (Fans of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet should enjoy a new installment, though.) The horrific elements fall short of memorably nightmarish. Nor is King's writing as lush and delicious as it can be in other novels. This is a fast, enjoyable read--at least for those who find a little spine-chilling starvation stories to be enjoyable--but nothing terribly special. 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: gruesome imagery

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