On Sunday, a panel I wasn’t on was asked by its moderator if they had ever met and embarrassed themselves in front of one of their literary heroes? I wasn’t on that panel, but had I been, my answer would have been “Yes, I met Stephen King at the Edgar Award banquet a couple of years ago and was a complete gibbering idiot.”
Although I am pretty sure he is used to that by now, it’s something that I still think about, and am embarrassed by, to this very day.
Then again, what DO you say to someone whose work you’ve admired for over forty years? Who inspired, and continues to inspire, you to this very day?
He won the Edgar Award for Best Novel that night for his book Mr. Mercedes. I have to admit I don’t read King the way I did for years; buy it the day it comes out and shut everything out and do nothing, watch nothing, ignore the entire world until I had devoured the book. I still haven’t read 11/22/63, haven’t finished The Dark Tower (have about four books to go in that series), put aside Doctor Sleep and Black House, and not only hadn’t read Mr. Mercedes, but none of the other two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy either.
Bad fan, bad fan.
But I took Mr. Mercedes with me on this trip, saved it for last, and just finished it a little while ago.
Augie Odenkirk had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage, but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job, and City Center was on the far side of town, so he decided to take the last bus of the night. He got off at twenty past eleven with his pack on his back and his rolled up sleeping bag under one arm. He thought he would be glad of the down-filled bag by three A.M. The night was misty and chill.
“Good luck, man,” the driver said as he stepped down, “You ought to get something for just being the first one there.”
Only he wasn’t. When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike. Augie was familiar with these from movie theaters and the bank where he was currently overdrawn, and understood it’s purpose: to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible.
As he approached the end of what would soon be a conga-line of job applicants, Augie was both amazed and dismayed to see that the woman at the end of the line has a sleeping baby in a Papoose carrier. The baby’s cheeks were flushed with the cold; each exhale came with a faint rattle.
The woman heard Augie’s slightly out-of-breath approach, and turned. She was young and pretty enough, even with the dark circles under her eyes. At her feet was a small quilted carry-case. Augie supposed it was a baby support system.
“Hi,” she said. “Welcome to the Early Birds Club.”
“Hopefully we’ll catch a worm.” He debated, thought what the hell, and stuck out his hand. “August Odenkirk. Augie. I was recently downsized. That’s the twenty-first-century way of saying I got canned.”
The book deserved its Edgar Award. Wow.
One of the things I love the most about Stephen King’s work is how incredibly well he draws characters; he even manages to make the worst of the worst, characters you absolutely hate, understandable.
The prologue to the book is, as you can see above, set in a line for a job fair outside of an unnamed city in Ohio’s civic center. In the relationship between Augie and Janice, the young mother, he immediately creates two characters you feel like you know–the older guy who’s lost his job and is worried about his future; the young struggling single mother who just wants to work so she can provide for herself and her child. These are working class people who are hurting, who are worried, who are willing to do whatever they have to do. But as the morning sun begins to rise, someone driving a Mercedes jumps the curb and deliberately drives into the crowd–the last we see of Augie is him lying down on top of Janice and her baby to try to protect them from the car.
The book is, actually, a taut, fast moving thriller that begins after the prologue; about a duel of wits between retired police detective Bill Hodges (who was in charge of the Mercedes killer investigation) and Mr. Mercedes himself, the killer. The killer is now stalking Bill–divorced, estranged from his only child, now retired and with nothing to do. Bill sometimes takes out his gun and considers eating it…and the killer’s plan is to drive Bill to suicide.
Instead, Bill is reinvigorated upon receipt of a nasty letter from the killer, and so begins a cat-and-mouse game that kept me turning the pages and up way later then I needed to be. Wow; what a great story! And I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series–there were some loose ends there that will be tied up in later books in the trilogy.