"The Gunslinger," Stephen King

Pros: Oddly slow and methodical – and not in a bad way. Fresh and unusual. An immersive experience
Cons: Slow and methodical; unusual
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

       

First published 7/2/2001

A good friend sent me this book as a gift some time ago, calling it “an old friend” of his. It took me a long time to get around to reading it, but now I think I can see why he was so taken with it. As a note, I’m wavering between four and five stars for this book. This is an odd book, and one that it will take me a while to fully digest – if in fact I can ever completely figure out what I think about it.

The Plot

In a strange way, very little actually happens in this book. At it’s simplest level it’s about a gunslinger tracking a man in black across a desert, and what happens when he finally catches up with him. Most of the story is description and recollection. The copy I have is an oversized paperback with reasonably large print, 216 pages of story. It seems like there should be a lot there, and yet… Well, to put it another way, I read this today. I started it this morning, read it around things like laundry and working on a writing contract, and then finished it about an hour ago.

The book’s genre is a little hard to peg. Some bits come off like horror, but this isn’t really a horror novel. Some parts come off like fantasy, and indeed it might be a fantasy novel. But really I see it as science fiction. Is it set in our future? Is it another world entirely? Who really knows – and is it all that important anyway? (This book isn’t for kids, however – there’s some sex here and there.)

This book is about one man’s journey. It seems for quite some time that it’s a journey toward revenge, but it isn’t. It’s about something much greater, that I don’t wholly understand yet. Oh, who am I kidding. I don’t understand it at all. I’m looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

The Writing

Frankly, I love King’s writing in this book. It’s slow and winding, like a cloud of smoke that seeps into your pores. Bits and pieces of the gunslinger’s past unfurl before us as he moves across the desert relentlessly chasing his quarry. Some things about him and the society he came from become clear. Others are mentioned briefly and beautifully in passing, and never really detailed. I like this; it adds to the sense of mystery. I don’t think there was anything that King failed to detail that left me feeling unhappily confused.

The gunslinger is an unusual sort of man, unabashedly lacking in certain traits that most protagonists have in abundance, such as imagination. He’s such an odd person in some ways, in fact, that it should have been all but impossible for King to get across the feel of him. Yet he does, beautifully. The sense of him lingers even after the book is put down, as though he has a real presence, has left a psychic impression upon the pages that my fingers touched. So solid is that presence, in fact, that even though someone told me that the next two books in the series aren’t all that good, I feel the need to read them. I feel that I have to find out who and what this person is and where his journey will take him.

King weaves in some odd little things here and there – tarot cards, and perhaps an odd version of Merlin somewhere in the distance. Mutants and the strange society of the gunslingers. Odd sparks of life in a beautiful, dry and dusty land.

I do recommend this book, but not if you require a climactic chase or an explosion on every other page. It’s an immersive experience. The beauty of it comes not from the plot, but from simply having the chance, for a single book’s worth of pages, to exist in this magical world that King has created. And it is a world that consists almost entirely of a single, most curious and engaging cipher of a man.

Be prepared to read it twice, however. I’m already feeling that itch in my fingers. By the end we’ve learned such a gradual, slow revelation of the gunslinger, that I feel I must read the book again to see how that informs his early actions – how different his early thoughts will seem when seen in a different light.

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