Duma Key by Stephen King
I have to confess that I haven’t read that many Stephen King books. So this could be far from being one of his best. However, it’s very nearly the best King that I‘ve read so far.
1992’s Dolores Claiborne and last year’s Lisey’s Story I’d class as he very best; I liked Rose Madder enough to read it twice.
Of the other Kings that I’ve tried, I liked a few well enough – The Stand, The Shining, one or two others; One or two were just awful – The Cell comes to mind (was his editor on holiday when that came in?) and I couldn’t get past the second chapter of the first Dark Tower book.
The books of his that I liked all have one thing in common – they play down the gore (knowing that a key scene involved a character having his legs smashed with a hammer stopped me from even picking up Misery; the scene that caused me to put down the Dark Tower book for ever was a minutely-detailed description of a boy getting crushed by a car) and concentrate instead on the human element.
Duma Key reliably carries on with what seems to be King’s new motif – that of the ‘wounded artist’ who has been terribly injured in a traumatic life-changing accident. Edgar Freemantle is a successful building contractor who loses an argument with a crane one day and ends up brain-damaged and minus one arm and his wife. Moving to a remote Florida key, he develops an overwhelming obsession to draw and paint, even though he has never been interested in art before. Naturally, this sudden talent of his is not entirely natural…..
What I liked: the descriptions of Freemantle in his painting ‘frenzies’ – I’ve never got that intense, but I have pretty much lost myself in painting sessions; the descriptions of Freemantle’s friend Wireman – one of the best depictions of male friendship I’ve read; the descriptions of the pitiless depredations of Alzheimer’s; the thorough fleshing-out of even the subsidiary characters (with one exception); the nice, sneaky literary device of occasionally referring to the one-armed Freemantle’s “hands”, which makes you sit up and say “Hey, did I just read hands-?”. Oh, and the real can’t-put-this-down hold of the story.
What I didn’t like: the treatment of the one character that was little more than a two-dimensional cipher, even though he was essential to the later action – he had a name but might just as well have been called The Sidekick, since that was pretty much all we were shown of him. Why King couldn’t have given him a backstory and fleshed him out as much as he did with characters who were given only a couple of pages, I have no idea. And I didn’t like the way that we were told so little of how Freemantle managed everyday life without an arm. We were told how difficult it was for him to drive, but when he did drive, there was no indication of any problems; there a scene where he had to stand up and read from a book – King gave us no indication of how a one-armed man can turn the pages of a book he is holding. And although there are detailed descriptions of his painting sessions, we get no indication of how he manages to, for instance, unscrew the cap of a paint tube. OK, the lack of such descriptions don’t detract from the story – which is terrific – but I do wonder why King couldn’t have found a one-armed artist to observe at work.