The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
By Stephen King
Donald M. Grant; 792 pages; $45

It's been six years since the last installment of Stephen King's epic fantasy saga, "The Dark Tower." "Volume Three: The Wastelands" ended in a cliffhanger and left King's fans champing at the bit for the further adventures of Roland, the haunted gunslinger who journeys across a desolate world in search of a mystical edifice that may hold the answers to every question about the universe.

Now "The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass" is available in a limited hardcover edition and will be offered as a trade paperback by NAL in November. Though twice as long as the average popular novel and written with a good deal of style and feeling, this volume isn't likely to satisfy the appetites of readers eager to learn the resolution of King's grand literary experiment, the first volume of which was published more than fifteen years ago.

"Wizard and Glass" begins with Roland of Gilead and his four traveling companions -- ex-junkie Eddie Dean, schoolboy Jake Chambers, wheelchair-bound Odetta Susannah Holmes and four-legged, furry "billybumbler" Oy-- still in the clutches of Blaine, a high-speed monorail with an artificial intelligence system driven mad by time and circumstance. Blaine loves riddles, and he promises not to smash his hapless passengers to pudding if they can beat him in a riddling contest before they arrive at their final stop.

Roland and his friends do get the best of the insane locomotive, and they wind up in a version of Kansas familiar to anyone who has read King's one-volume fantasy epic, "The Stand." But before they go very far, Roland decides to reveal a bit more about his mysterious past. As they settle around the campfire, he says to his companions, "I'm not sure you need to hear, but I think I need to tell. Our future is the Tower, and to go toward it with a whole heart, I must put my past to rest as best I may. There's no way I could tell you all of it -- in my world even the past is in motion, rearranging itself in many vital ways -- but this one story may stand for all the rest."

The narrative then flashes back to Roland's first mission as a full-fledged gunslinger, when he and two friends, none more than fourteen, found themselves in a small town riddled with corruption and sorcery. Roland fell in love for the first time, with a girl he was forbidden to have, and wound up losing her, killing a lot of people and very nearly forfeiting his own soul.

It's a daring authorial gambit. Just as the plot is gaining momentum, King stops the main story, the one his loyal readers have been impatiently following since 1982, dead in its tracks and indulges in what at first feels very much like a 550-page digression.

The centerpiece of "Wizard and Glass" proves to be more than that, however. Taken on its own terms, it's a well-crafted romantic adventure, albeit one that could benefit from being shortened by about a third. What makes the flashback so frustrating is that, even as it illuminates interesting new nuances of Roland's character, it ultimately seems like one more detour on a journey that's already taken far longer than it should.

What makes "The Dark Tower" saga so compelling is that it clearly springs from the heart of King's imagination. It's a hodge-podge of incidents, characters and conventions that really shouldn't work together but that mostly do, mainly through the sheer, stubborn force of the author's storytelling prowess. This epic obviously means something important to King, and he's going to tell it whatever way he pleases.

Readers can either go along for the ride or get the heck out of the way.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry


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