As a child, it was Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott who gave me the idea that I wanted to be a writer. But it wasn’t until I found my mother’s paperback copy of Salem’s Lot stashed in my grandmother’s closet that I knew what it was like to not be able to put down a book.
Over the years, King has taken me to all sorts of places I would never have found without him. More than any college professor with a red pen, he showed me what you could do if you loved to write and were blessed enough to be good at it.
He was also one of the patches in the quilt that was my relationship with my mother. We lived in mutual terror of Pennywise, and shared shivers when Pet Cemetary’s Gage said “I want to play with you, Daddy.” Mom said she was pretty sure me and my friends went to Boo-Ya Moon when we had one too many drinks. In her last months, Dr. Sleep gave us moments where we forgot to be afraid of the monster in Mom’s chest.
King doesn’t know me, but he is still an old friend.
When I heard that his latest creation, Mr. Mercedes, was hitting the shelves, I got that kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling. But when I had my copy in my hands, I looked down at the book and realized it was the first Stephen King journey I’d be taking without Mom. We wouldn’t be texting about this one as we stayed up all night reading it, her in her bed with her dogs sprawled around her and me on my couch with my fat cat head-butting my book at the good parts.
The thought of a solo Stephen King journey burned a little, deep down in my gut. But I opened the book and began reading anyway, because doing so felt like a needed rite of passage into this new landscape of life without Mom.
And bless him, he did exactly what I needed him to do. He took me away and let me live for a while among new friends having strange adventures that had nothing to do with my life.
When you are a Stephen King fan, you become accustomed to stories with supernatural, fantastical and sometimes downright bizarre elements. You suspend disbelief to enjoy them, and King’s sucks you in so easily that you don’t even realize that’s what you’ve done.
Mr. Mercedes is not that kind of ride. There are no creepy clowns popping out of sewers, no Redrum-inducing spirits, no vampires, no Boo-ya Moons – only human beings with broken souls.
Mr. Mercedes is the story of Hodges, a retired, suicidally depressed detective who is taunted by the guy who got away. Brady Hartsfield is a demented young man who turned a woman’s stolen car into a murder weapon and starts a game of cat and mouse with Hodges for no other reason than that doing so quells the crazy in his head.
We’ve all seen Brady Hartsfields on the news, even if we’ve been fortunate enough not to know one personally. No need to suspend disbelief this time. King shows that he can write the horrors of the real world as well as the imaginary ones in his head. He does so with his signature quirky charm and grace.
Mr. Mercedes has a cast of imperfect characters that I couldn’t help but love. Detective Hodges is overweight, disconnected from his family, and depressed. He spends his opening scene watching a Jerry Springeresque talk show. His closest friend is a brilliant young high school student named Jerome. His other sidekick is an anxiety-ridden, disturbed middle-aged woman named Holly, who lives with an overbearing mother and the ghosts of her tormented youth.
Of the three, only Jerome has youth and promise on his side. Holly and Hodges are broken, and not in that typical “handsome tough guy” or “pretty woman who went to the school of hard knocks” kind of main character way. They are the kind of people we pity. King shows us the cracks in their spirits and then makes them shine anyway.
Mr. Mercedes is filled with what I have come to expect from Stephen King. It is a book you don’t want to put down, with endearingly quirky characters and a dark and twisted enemy. But it is also King outside of his box. This joyride takes place in the world we step out into each day, with no otherworldly influences turning it on its head.
What a ride it was. Well done, Mr. King. I hope Mom was able to read over my shoulder. I think she’d enjoy this side of you.