It would be false to say that Stephen King transcends the mundane. The mundane is where he works, and if his books didn't come out of the banality of Dunkin' Donuts and supermarkets and those neighborhood baseball fields that always seem equal parts grass and dirt, they probably wouldn't be so effective. He may not probe far beneath the surface of middle-class American life, but no one has done a better job of rendering that surface and its artifacts.
Some of the best moments in King's books happen when those artifacts are suddenly seen to hold unexpected meaning. In his last novel, "Bag of Bones," a young widower flipping past the bookmark in one of his dead wife's paperbacks reads a sentence he realizes she'll never get to. It's a simple, beautiful image of life interrupted. In his new novel, "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon," there is a simple and unexpected image of life continuing. Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland has become lost in the woods after wandering away from her mother and brother during a hike on the Appalachian Trail. To quell her fears about the oncoming night, she tunes in a Red Sox game on her Walkman: "She pushed the button and like a miracle her head filled with the sound of Jerry Trupiano's voice ... and more importantly, with the sounds of Fenway Park. She was sitting out here in the darkening, drippy woods, lost and alone, but she could hear thirty thousand people."
Tom Gordon, the relief pitcher for the Red Sox, is Trisha's idol, and as her time in the woods goes on he begins appearing to her as companion and guardian angel. King uses this apparition as a means of asking questions about whether God exists and, if he does, whether he cares about us. This isn't the first time he's delved into religious issues (the power to heal is one of the elements of "The Green Mile"), and it's less mawkish than some of those other attempts, but it's something I hope he gets out of his system soon -- primarily because it feels like a betrayal of his talent, a reaction to some guilty belief that he should be writing something "important."
But this novel works the way Stephen King books always work: as a piece of storytelling. It's the sort of story no one writes much anymore, in which a lone protagonist has to survive out in the elements, and King shows how gripping it can still be. There's a satisfying specificity to his writing. The changes in the terrain Trisha wanders are particularly vivid, as are almost all of Trisha's reactions: "She took a moment to steel herself and then jumped into the stagnant water, startling up a cloud of waterbugs and releasing a stench of peaty decay. The water was not quite up to her knees. The stuff her feet were sinking in felt like cold, lumpy jelly. Yellowish bubbles rose in the disturbed water; swirling in them were black fragments of who knows what." Icky, isn't it?
King doesn't trust himself enough not to spell out the lessons Trisha learns during her ordeal; they feel perfunctory, like the TV-movieish sections about her parents' divorce (though I found her tenacity and her growing understanding of the uselessness of self-pity rather winning). And the way he's chosen to write about the thing that appears to be tracking Trisha through the woods feels like a sop to fans who'll be disappointed that this isn't a horror novel.
All the same, King is a conscientious craftsman who gives his audience his best. There are plenty of bestsellers out there, but precious few written by anyone with a genuine storytelling spark, not to mention a discernible personality. I don't know of any other popular writer who could describe a little girl getting battered and bruised as she gets more and more lost without making readers feel they're participating in something unclean.