"From a Buick 8" by Stephen King

The master of horror ends his recent slump with this skeptical tale about a strange car, a troop of state police and the fundamental unknowability of the universe.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published September 19, 2002 10:16PM (EDT)

Whatever the vintage Buick Roadmaster stashed in a shed behind the state police barracks in the western Pennsylvania town of Statler may be, it isn't a vintage Buick Roadmaster. As the only scientist who ever examines it remarks, it isn't an automobile of any kind. One character in Stephen King's new novel observes -- shortly before dying in an especially gruesome fashion, which may or may not be the Buick's doing -- that the thing may not even be real, in the ordinary sense of that word. Curt Wilcox, Sandy Dearborn and their fellow members of Troop D perceive it as a Buick, or at least as a half-convincing imitation of one, because they have encountered it and, well, they have to perceive it as something.

It's certainly to King's credit that he never gets specific about what the mysterious noncar in "From a Buick 8" actually is. Oh, it's a channel or a portal or a transportation device of some kind, but where it came from, why it's here and who the waxy-looking, black-caped stranger was who "drove" it into Statler one July morning in 1979 -- we never learn any of that. As sinister and powerful as the Buick turns out to be, one possibility is that its presence in Statler isn't part of any diabolical scheme or interstellar invasion or anything like that. It might just be an accident, a forgotten hunk of unknowable junk, a random artifact of another world left behind in a dusty corner of our own.

Furthermore, I'm not giving anything away in telling you the above, because the point of "From a Buick 8," more or less, is that we don't get any answers to the Big Questions. Strange things happen, and more often than not they can't be explained. Life ends in death, and more often than not it's a horrible, wrenching experience (at least for those of us left behind). Where have the dead gone? We don't know, but from here it looks dark and far away. In an author's note at the end of the book, King himself describes the novel as "a meditation on the essentially indecipherable quality of life's events, and how impossible it is to find a coherent meaning in those events."

Trooper Sandy Dearborn, King's principal narrator and authorial stand-in, puts it a bit differently, if not with much more certainty. Even before the question of the mystery Buick sitting out in Shed B arises, teenage Ned Wilcox wants a reason why his dad, Sandy's friend and comrade Curt, was run down a year earlier by a drunk on the roadside.

"I thought of telling him I didn't know about reasons, only about chains," Sandy muses, "how they form themselves, link by link, out of nothing; how they knit themselves into the world. Sometimes you can grab a chain and use it to pull yourself out of a dark place. Mostly, though, I think you get wrapped up in them. Just caught, if you're lucky. Fucking strangled, if you're not."

Sandy's a chain-smoking bachelor who, like so many King protagonists, is closer to being fucking strangled by the chains of the past than he'd like to admit. Before this evening in 2002 is over, he, along with a full roster of his Troop D comrades (the usual crew of Hollywood-ready crusty rural types found in a King novel), will tell Ned the whole story of the Buick 8 his father was so obsessed with. Sometimes the temperature in Shed B drops hard and fast. Sometimes things disappear in that car. Sometimes things appear. Little things, mostly. Oddities. Except for that horrible day in 1988.

Ned's dead father thought that whatever inexplicable energy ran through the Buick was beginning to run down and dissipate, the way an old watch lost in the forest might tick on fitfully, slower and slower, for years. So why are Sandy and Huddie and Arky and Shirley and the other troopers so eager to indoctrinate eager, wounded Ned into the Buick's mysteries? And do they notice how cold it's getting out in that shed, on the night of all this storytelling?

I suppose you could say, and critics inevitably will, that "From a Buick 8" reflects a post-Sept. 11 Stephen King, not to mention a post-near-death-experience Stephen King. Indeed, the fall of the twin towers, although only mentioned once, forms part of the story's background and context, and the accident that kills Curt Wilcox bears a striking resemblance to the one that almost killed King in 1999. (In the author's note, King insists that he had already completed a first draft of the novel by that time and changed nothing substantive about the story afterward.)

This book is indisputably about fate and coincidence and our sometimes desperate efforts to link the two, and in that sense it feels highly contemporary. Although "From a Buick 8" will surely keep you turning the pages (I read it in one sitting), it isn't the most propulsive of King's novels; its profound skepticism about the nature of storytelling itself runs through the entire book like a flawed thread through a family quilt.

Ned Wilcox wants to hear "a story, one that has a beginning and a middle and an end where everything is explained," much as his father tried to find a formula or equation that could explain the Buick and its apparitions. Sandy wants that too, just as we all do, but he's trying to adjust himself to the reality that all we ever get are links in a chain whose beginning and end we can't see.

Despite this new and not altogether stable level of meta-awareness in King's writing, the shift in his work is, I would say, more a matter of tone and coloration than of anything fundamental. It's not as if previous King books have offered much in the way of cosmological explanations, after all: What's actually wrong with the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining"? Where did the subterranean evil that haunts Derry, Maine, in "It" come from? Why is it such a bad idea to bury your dead kid behind the "Pet Sematary"? Is John Coffey in "The Green Mile" really the Second Coming or just a cosmic fluke?

"From a Buick 8" (whose title, by the way, refers to the 1965 Bob Dylan song "From a Buick 6") is at heart a classic King fable of a dirty municipal secret, dirty because it's tainted by guilt and shame. (I foresee Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson vying for the central role of Sandy; allow me to suggest Nicolas Cage as the obsessive, doomed Curt, Jake Gyllenhaal of "Donnie Darko" as Ned and Steve Buscemi as the local drunk who links much of the tale together.) The men (and lone woman) of Troop D are good cops -- this novel features only one brief appearance by a bigoted, wife-beating villain in the customary King mold and he's a civilian -- but even the best people have done things they aren't proud of. And while most of us don't have a haunted alien car in the backyard, hey, monsters and death and heinous injustice tend to turn up anyway, and there's always somebody or something to blame besides ourselves. As Sandy tells Ned toward the end of the story, "There are Buicks everywhere."

Deft and complicated as "From a Buick 8" is on the philosophical and existential fronts, it isn't quite as successful as a horror story. I shouldn't get too specific about this, but King is, to some degree, trying simultaneously to invade and to subvert the terrain of original New England horror-meister H.P. Lovecraft, the most lurid of his predecessors in the American Gothic tradition.

His effort to situate a portal into a Lovecraftian realm of eldritch, gibbering terrors in the trunk of a fake car sitting in a shed somewhere outside Pittsburgh plays brilliantly as black comedy and as fable. It never, however, feels hair-raisingly real; you won't spend sleepless nights jumping at shadows on account of reading this book, the way you might with King's scarier volumes, from "The Shining" through "Bag of Bones." Still, for any King fans disappointed by the unfocused maundering of "Hearts in Atlantis" and "Dreamcatcher," "From a Buick 8" is almost all good news. Whether this novel's quasi-postmodern current of ambiguity and skepticism signals a new direction in King's work remains to be seen, but the greatest pop writer of them all is back behind the wheel.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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