Stephen King,
The Dark Tower #4: Wizard & Glass
(Grant, 1997)

Wizard & Glass is not only the best book in the Dark Tower series, it may well be the best Stephen King book I've ever read. It is grand, operatic, vivid, a story worthy of Tolkien, throbbing with atmosphere and aching with the shattered soul and broken heart of the story's principal character, Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger.

This tale of first love -- and that love's tragic loss -- forms the centerpiece of the novel, which begins where The Waste Lands left off, with Roland and co. trapped on Blaine (the Pain), engaged in a riddling contest (shades of Bilbo and Gollum!) for their very lives. They defeat Blaine (how I won't say, but it's a moment that beats the hell out of every time Captain Kirk ever overloaded a mad computer), and soon discover they've somehow jumped dimensions (another side effect of the Tower's failing) and wound up in the world of The Stand -- a moment so chilling I got goosepimples. Really!

Of course, given that rambunctious Randy Flagg has now become the villain of this piece, this bit of dimension switching should hardly come as a surprise -- but it's nevertheless fascinating. Roland and co. travel on in this deserted world, finding evidence of both Mother Abigail and the Dark Man (as well as the Crimson King from Insomnia), and soon encounter a "thinny" -- a warp between dimensions that is like a mosquito with a 1,000-watt amplifier buzzing in one's ear. This triggers in Roland a flashback -- and most of the next 550 pages are spent in the days of Roland's youth, just after he defeated Cort. He is sent by his father -- along with companions Cuthbert and Alain -- to the sleepy sea community of Mejis. Here they discover the conspiracies of John Farson (a.k.a. the Good Man, a.k.a. Marten Broadcloak, a.k.a. Richard Fannin, a.k.a. Randall Flagg) are hard at work, involving the theft of oil from a still (though barely) working refinery, which Farson intends to refine for use as gasoline and, possibly, napalm. While evidence of this is slowly being uncovered, Roland meets Susan, the horse-drover's daughter alluded to in the first Dark Tower book, who is betrothed to the greedy mayor, Thorin (also the name of the greedy dwarf in The Hobbit). There begins between Susan and Roland a forbidden love. Much more happens, involving Farson's lackies, Susan's half-crazed aunt and Rhea, the witch of the Coos, who holds in her hand an all-seeing crystal ball that is consuming her from the inside out ... but it is the love between Susan and Roland that is the soul of this book. Every moment of it is sweetly, adoringly, even frighteningly realistic -- such as the moment when Roland kisses her with such force, her mouth bleeds, or Susan's mingled fear and excitement, even arousal, at being in such a precarious situation, or the jealousy and impatience of Cuthbert and Alain, who have Farson more on their minds (they think) than Roland does.

I could go on -- about the marvelous depiction of Mejis, and its quaint (though dangerous) denizens, the evil Coffin Killers (I always picture Jason Robards as their leader for some reason), or the lyrical language King uses during this narrative -- a lyricism that is present, it seems, only in this series and early novels such as Salem's Lot and The Stand, although Rose Madder has a lot of it, too.

I could speak of the richly depicted characters, or the numerous Tolkien parallels -- I've mentioned two, and here's another: the Wizard's Grapefruit, which is in appearance and its effect on Rhea eerily like the Palantirs in the Rings saga. I could go on and on -- but in the end, I'll mention this one thing, and leave it at that: Wizard & Glass is a work of boundless heart and imagination, chilling and warm all at once, a wholly-successful melding of the Wild West, the journey of the Ringbearer and Arthurian myth that King hinted at in the previous three novels. There is not a moment when there is not something of interest going on, when you are not amused or unsettled or in love or in fear; King is a writer of immeasurable talent, and this novel proves it.

As to the Wizard of Oz riff that provides much of the framing story -- it is, to quote King's description of the Marsten house in Salem's Lot, "a literary curlicue, there to provide mood ... and not much else." Of course it also sets the stage for what is to come in the next three books -- the true quest for the Dark Tower (where Sauron lived in Tolkien's story!) which promises to be every bit as enthralling and entertaining as what has come before. Dorothy was on a quest, too; she wanted nothing more than to go home, much as each of our characters does (except possibly young Jake), the difference being that not only do our heroes know they can never go home again (as Thomas Wolfe would no doubt tell them), there is not even a guarantee they will reach their destination alive. Using the Oz parallel is simply King's way of reminding us (and possibly himself) that all roads have endings, and that all quests much sooner or later reach their fruition.

If Wizard & Glass is any indication, I can't wait for what is at the end of Roland's long, hard-traveled road.

book review by
Jay Whelan

15 January 2011

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