Reading Mr. Mercedes, you yearn for the possibility that the astonishingly prolific Stephen King might once again make the acquaintance of a second draft. This cop-and-terrorist thriller often suggests less a novel than the fevered bullet notes for a screenplay to be completed later. The pace is numbing, relentless. Reams of detail and incident are thrown out at you with a speed-freak indifference to detail or nuance that’s exasperated by familiarly overcompensating authorial tics such as words that are bolded or CAPITALIZED needlessly, while italics add emphasis and urgency arbitrarily when you already get it and wish that King would just move on. After a while, a kind of sensory deprivation sets in and you may need to take a break from Mr. Mercedes and read another book composed of sentences that read as if they’ve been actively achieved on purpose. There’s a difference between wearing your craftsmanship lightly in the deceptively masterful tradition of, say, Elmore Leonard, and simply appearing to not give a damn.
King has always been a pointedly off-the-cuff writer; that’s why it took the literati so long to take him seriously. And that informality is, indeed, the source of the author’s brilliance: When he’s cooking, there’s no writer who can match King in the realm of capturing the pop culture-addled joys, hang-ups, victories, and disappointments of the American middle class. Mr. Mercedes opens promisingly with a narrative bait and switch that briefly introduces us to characters that’re about to be mowed down outside of a job fair by a maniac driving a stolen Mercedes. Eight people are killed, including a baby, and dozens more are seriously injured. Detective Bill Hodges investigated the case, but couldn’t make any headway, and he soon finds himself spending his days uncomfortably retired, gaining weight in front of his TV and contemplating suicide, until the maniac sends a letter actively attempting to goad him into swallowing a bullet. Ironically rejuvenated, Hodges puts himself, albeit illegally, back on the “Mercedes Killer” case.
King shrewdly connects Hodges’s torment, the stuff of formula cop movies, to larger American feelings of rootlessness and economic despair. The prologue hauntingly captures the infuriation of waiting in a job line that’s almost certain to prove fruitless, though you can’t even grant yourself the weird comfort of hopelessness. King understands the lingering possibility of salvation to be, in its fashion, even worse than the direct physical and emotional carnage inflicted from living a life in the street or unemployed with a child and a constant shortage of food stamps. The Mercedes Killer, who’s revealed early on to be the kind of socially stunted, madly entitled asshole who seemingly perpetrates every nationally covered shooting, is similarly positioned as another, more nakedly toxic, product of impoverished outrage.
The novel opens with a shout-out to crime writer James M. Cain, and it’s initially a relief to see King working outside of the horror genre again, as his last book, Doctor Sleep, was hemmed in by fantasy trope that appeared to bore the author even more than me. But King doesn’t find a way into the hard-boiled mystery genre, and so he often resorts to shopworn clichés and absurd, unsatisfying plotting. The dialogue is appallingly tone deaf, particularly between Hodges and Jerome, a black aspiring Harvard enrollee who occasionally kids the retired cop with ebonic phrasing that he utters under the persona of “Tyrone Feelgood Delight.” Janey, a wealthy relative of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims as well as Hodges’s eventual love interest, fares even worse than Jerome. Written as the ultimate MILF fantasy, with the body and maturity of a 20 year old, yet with the world-weary resignation that belies her fortysomething years, therefore rendering her attainable to our tarnished aging hero, Janey is constantly “wrinkling” her nose at Hodges and trading in cute barbs that are meant to endear her to the reader:
Janey rolls her eyes. “I wish I could think of a way to answer you that’s gentler than ’Men are stupid’ or more elegant than ’I was horny and wanted to brush away the cob webs.’ I’m not coming up with much, so let’s go with those. I got laid. I’m forty-four, and that allows me to reach for what I want. I don’t always get it, but I’m allowed to reach.”
That sort of crass obviousness abounds in this book, which might be the worst of King’s career. One mentally impaired character is described, with typical short-cut callousness, as looking “like Princess Leia after a year on the Karen Carpenter diet.” Granted, that sentiment is attributed to a character to cover the author’s tracks, but still: It’s curt and stupid. A pivotal building is described (again from the ass-covering vantage point of another character) as resembling the “giant UFO that shows up at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and, at one point, in the most flagrantly self-conscious of the book’s many justifiers, the villain even acknowledges to himself that his revenge plot is so absurd and thrown-together that “the stupidest no-talent screenwriter in Hollywood could do better.” Yet here we are.
Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes will be available on June 3 from Scribner; to purchase it, click here.