What does it take to narrate a Stephen King novel? It might appear to be a straightforward enough job, given the vernacular twang of King's style, which seems made for the spoken word. But for all its lack of pretension, the emotional register of King's fiction swings wildly, and anyone narrating his longer books must be able to carry off snippets of popular songs, fragments of the characters' obsessive thoughts, the down-home repartee of working stiffs, interludes of ominous description or cosmic dread, and of course outright, extravagant horror. Not only that, but any King narrator will follow in the footsteps of some top-drawer talent: Sissy Spacek, Campbell Scott (a clammily claustrophobic reading of "The Shining"), Raul Esparza and John Slatterly are just some of the actors who have recorded his books in the past.
As far as I can tell, "Doctor Sleep" -- a just-published sequel to "The Shining" -- is the first King audiobook Will Patton has read. I hope it won't be the last. This is a novel about inheritance, particularly that of Dan Torrance, the child character in "The Shining." The adult Dan must choose between the example set by his angry, self-deluding alcoholic father, Jack, and the alternate model offered by the Overlook chef, Dick Hallorann, young Danny's mentor in psychic abilities (and other life skills). Dick taught Danny, and now Dan in turn is called upon to guide Abra, a 13-year-old New Hampshire girl who is even more gifted in the Shining than Dan was as a boy. A pack of roving psychic vampires calling themselves the True Knot wants to drain the Shining out of her in the nastiest way imaginable.
But every bit as threatening as these fiends is the specter of alcoholism, the demon that Dan inherited from Jack and that will hound him for the rest of his life. For me, the most resonant elements in King's novels are the passages depicting the heroism of ordinary people simply carrying on, holding up their end or rising to the occasion and, alternately, the misery of their failures; this novel contains one of the best descriptions of a hangover I've ever read. Even more important than Patton's facility with the fantastical and gory bits of "Doctor Sleep" is his ability to carry off lines like these, in which Dan tries to smother his guilt about raiding the wallet of a one-night stand by inhaling the "brown smell" of a bottle of booze: "That smell could talk, although it only had one thing to say: Hello, old friend."
Patton's voice is gruff and avuncular, salt-of-the-earth, the voice of the only car mechanic or plumber you could ever trust implicitly, a man whose competence and integrity are worth a price beyond rubies. He wisely chooses to understate the more melodramatic passages in "Doctor Sleep," with the exception, that is, of the parts told from the point of view of Abra herself. Voicing a tween girl isn't going to be easy for any manly narrator, and Patton's rendition of her dialogue is just passable. But the way he subtly tweaks up the energy and emotion in the narration of Abra's chapters is perfect, and a reminder of how much a gifted and meticulous actor can bring to the seemingly basic job of reading an audiobook.
"Doctor Sleep," to my mind, rates among King's best books; the horror is not too overblown, and his sardonic wit is in fine fettle. The True Knot, for example, though rich, well-connected and extremely evil, appear to the world in the harmless guise of Winnebago-driving retirees. The depiction of Dan's efforts to stay sober -- the crises that come when life truly sucks, but also the nearly overwhelming waves of thirst that arrive when everything's fine -- are utterly convincing, and the role of AA sponsors overlaps beautifully with the novel's theme of legacy and stewardship. It's not a young man's book; instead, it has a grizzled, hard-won wisdom to which Patton does nothing but justice.
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