Desperation, a recent Stephen King novel, is not just a book, but an experience that leaves the reader frightened, paranoid, and questioning his moral beliefs. Picture, if you will, a lone, crazed Nevada policeman who pulls over vehicles on a lonely desert highway and forcefully takes away their occupants. Whichever of them he doesnt kill immediately, he locks up in the jail of the small desolate town of Desperation. Among those captured are the vacationing Carver family, whose RV is sabotaged on its way to Arizona. Already incarcerated is Tom Billingsley, a once well-known member of the now slaughtered community of Desperation. They are soon joined by formerly famous, currently old and overweight writer, Johnny Marinville, who is riding across the country on his Harley-Davidson gathering material for a book of short stories. How to escape Desperation isnt the only unanswered question, though. How could and why would one man single-handedly murder the population of an entire town? How does he have such control over the minds of the animals? Why are they locked up when he could have killed them like every one else? Whatever it is that possesses the body of officer Collie Entraigan cant last forever, though. After several days his body is falling apart at the seams, and he is bleeding from every orifice. Weirder yet, he is growing several inches a day and is bound to burst soon. Will he? Or are the occupants of the local Desperation jail just backup bodies that the possessor will use when it wears out its current one? If so then what is it? More importantly, whos next?
An intriguing aspect of this book is that there is no real protagonist. King leaves the reader in constant suspense. Frequently changing views, the story follows one character or group of characters for one chapter and then in the next chapter, follows another, often intertwining the time sequences. The overlapping action is interrupted only by flashbacks that allow the reader to sympathize with a particular characters actions or feelings. These flashbacks are so intricate that it is difficult to believe they are fictional at all. They go into such detail of the life-altering experiences of everyone involved that the reader gets a sixth sense as to how the characters will react to certain situations. Telling the story in this manner allows the reader to see why every character acts the way that he does.
The book itself begins with a distressed Mary Jackson shouting “Oh! Oh, Jesus! Gross!” (p. 1) in repulsion upon seeing a dead cat nailed to a speed limit sign along the Nevada stretch of highway 50. This particular stretch of asphalt boasts the title “The Loneliest Highway in America,” and to New York born and raised Peter and Mary Jackson, it is beginning to get a little too creepy. Soon Peter notices an upcoming car in the rear-view mirror. “Big chrome grille, coming up fast and reflecting such a savage oblong of sun that he had to squint . . . but he thought the car was white, which meant it wasnt State Police.” (p. 6) Soon the little white Acura they are driving is pulled over. They are missing a rear license plate, the hauntingly large officer tells them, and when they open the trunk to get out the tool kit, he notices a gallon sized baggy full of “greenish-brown herbal matter.” (p. 18) Soon Peter and Mary are en route to the Desperation town jail. On the way there they pass an RV with four flat tires that the policeman flys by as though he doesnt even see it. Upon entering the doorway of the police station, the cop puts his arm around Peter and pumps three bullets in his guts while he and his wife stare in disbelief at the figure of a dead little girl, neck snapped, lying crookedly at the base of the stairs.
Now the reader is introduced to the Carver family. King evens out the story line by interrupting moments of intense action with flashbacks. In this particular case, King tells of the prior intentions of the Carver family. The story goes into such believable detail that it is difficult to take as fiction. He tells of how they had started out as “Four Happy Wanderers” as was detailed into the pinstripe of their RV, how they had suddenly blown four simultaneous flat tires, and how they were “rescued” by what seemed at the time like an outgoing officer of the law.
The focus of the author soon turns to past-his-prime writer Johnny Marinville as he feels the need to relieve himself cruising down Highway 50 on his cream and red Harley-Davidson Softtail motorcycle. Johnny decides to just pull over and let it go right there just off the highway. While doing so, he provides the reader with an interesting reminiscence of what his life was like back when he had groupies, was an alcoholic, and was addicted to heroin. Zipping up his jeans and buttoning up his riding chaps, Johnny turns around to find a police cruiser accompanied by a extremely large officer looming over his bike. After a brief, friendly conversation the officer tells Johnny he had better close up his unbuckled saddle bag. This strikes Johnny as odd, seeing as how he had everything tied down and buckled up when he got off the bike, but now his bright orange poncho was hanging half way out of his steel-studded saddle bag. When Johnny opens it up there is a bag of marijuana staring back at him that is strangely familiar to the reader. The cop beats up Marinville and throws him in the back of the cruiser, and soon he gets acquainted with the others back at the jail.
From this point on, the plot of the story becomes too intricate and involved to be covered simply by summarization, but the rapidly deteriorating officer soon leaves in pursuit of more victims, taking Ellen Carver with him. The crew of inmates soon escapes incarceration, led by the young and God-fearing David Carver. David has been deeply religious ever since his prayers awoke his best friend from a coma several days before they were going to pull the plug on him. He uses his faith in God to counteract the evils of Tak, the possessor, and his animal minions. The plot thickens as David performs several arguable miracles with the help of God, such as squeezing his entire body, including his head through a four inch gap between the prison bars. He also produces an entire meal for eight out of two cans of sardines and a half box of Ritz crackers (reminiscent of the bible story of the loaves and fishes) and causes Johnnys cellular phone to work as clear as day when no one else can get good enough reception to dial. While deep in prayer, he is provided with accurate, elaborate visions of the can tahs, little stone carvings contained in the depths of the pits of the Desperation Mining Company. Upon touching these carvings, people go crazy with a psychotic urge to kill until then their flesh melts off their bones like ice cream. These can tahs come from the ini, which is the main underground source of Taks evil. David wont leave Desperation without destroying the ini, feeling that God will see his life as a fair trade for that of his childhood friends.
Marinville, who is out of shape, but still has a sharp mind, foresees that David will feel as though he is obligated to take the subterranean suicide bombing mission upon himself. Johnny orders the others to subdue David while he takes the bags of ANFO explosive and plummets to the very heart of the evil of Desperation, blowing it up along with himself, while the others make their escape. He tells David to pretend like this never happened, to live his life, to “Go find your friend and make him your brother.” (p. 543) However, we never find out what exactly happens to any of the survivors.
I would recommend this book to any adventurous reader. The amazing attention to detail combined with the frighteningly realistic accounts of the pasts of the characters makes this book a fresh experience. Although I am not too familiar with other works of Stephen King, I can assure the reader that Desperations entangling sub-plots and horrific action are so intimidating that he will find himself turning in bed as much as he will turning the pages.