Hearts in Atlantis
By Stephen King
Scribner; 528 pages; $28

It's a long haul from being published in the pages of the skin magazine Cavalier to those of The New Yorker. In the twenty years since the publication of "Night Shift," his first short-story collection, Stephen King has accomplished that rather impressive transition. Depending on your outlook, it says much about either King's improvement as a writer or The New Yorker's literary decline.

With his latest book, King aims high, seeking to make a personal statement about the Sixties, of all things. "Hearts in Atlantis" presents five shorter works of varying lengths, whose settings span four decades. They obliquely share characters and all address, in some fashion, the war in Vietnam.

King leads from a position of strength with "Low Men in Yellow Coats," a creepy tale of a boy encountering an otherworldly visitor during the summer of 1960. Eleven-year-old Bobby Garfield's elderly upstairs neighbor, Mr. Brautigan, hires him to keep watch for signs that certain "bad" men have come to town. Bobby figures that Brautigan is merely a paranoid eccentric, until sinister events lend credence to the old man's warnings.

In a less demanding publishing climate, "Low Men in Yellow Coats" could have been published as a stand-alone novel, a sharply observed meditation on recognizing our elders' frailties and our own. The piece has ties to King's epic, uncompleted "Dark Tower" fantasy saga, but its strengths can be appreciated by anyone who enjoys a taut, well-plotted story of growing up.

The collection's other long piece, the title novella, takes place in 1966 at King's own alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. An out-of-control card tournament becomes a metaphor for this country's involvement in Vietnam, as the narrator, Pete Riley, and his dormmates neglect their studies while playing endless rounds of Hearts. Because King doesn't push the symbolism too hard, investing the card games with a genuine sense of suspense and the characters with real poignancy as they grapple with politics and sex for the first time, the novella succeeds in capturing the essence of certain time and place.

It isn't until the third story, "Blind Willie," that King's control falters. It's clear he vividly remembers what it's like to be an eleven-year-old or a college freshman. But when he pushes himself to make the imaginative leap to describing the inner life of a middle-class Vietnam veteran who poses as a blind beggar, he comes up short. The premise feels far-fetched, and its intended ironies ring hollow.

Worse still is the penultimate offering, "Why We're in Vietnam," describing the last days of one of Bobby Garfield's childhood friends. At the center of the story lies a secret that's supposed to be shocking, one intended to answer somehow the question posed in the title. But anyone who has ever been exposed to any kind of Vietnam fiction, whether the work of Tim O'Brien or even Peter Straub, will already have a good guess at what lies in this particular heart of darkness.

King tries to wrap thing up neatly in "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," the collection's coda. He stages the return of some of the most memorable characters from "Low Men in Yellow Coats," but the spell cast early in the book has been broken. Despite the volume's promising start, the reader leaves "Hearts in Atlantis" unsettled and disappointed.

With last year's "Bag of Bones," King attempted to stake out new territory, bringing an overtly literary approach to the conventions of popular horror fiction. "Hearts in Atlantis" shows that he's still trying to re-make himself, this time by addressing big issues and mainstream concerns. King maintains his command of the material for three-quarters of this volume's page-count. It's a shame that the final, more ambitious fourth of "Hearts in Atlantis" doesn't measure up.

(c) 1999 by Michael Berry

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