Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Desperation is the only one of King's novels in which God is actually a character. In The Green Mile, God miraculously influences events from behind the scenes, sending the mouse, Mr. Jingles, and the healer, John Coffey, to Cold Mountain Prison's death row. In Desperation, "The big G," as Ellen Carver calls Him, speaks directly to David Carver, Mary Jackson, and Johnny Marinville. Desperation's God even "enters" David and, ultimately, Johnny to guide their actions. When Johnny tells David that God has chosen him, not the child, to die, David asks: "Is God in you? Can you feel him in there, Johnny? Like a hand? Or a fire?" Desperation's God resembles Tak in taking "possession" of a person He has chosen to do His will. God is, however, more respectful of humanity than Tak because He observes "the free-will covenant." Persons whom God has touched have the option of walking away from the task He has set them, as Johnny, indeed, almost does. In contrast, Estragian, Ellen Carver, and the others possessed by the competing deity, Tak, lose all personal autonomy.
Although the God of Desperation is preferable to Tak, He is one of King's most disturbing fictional creations because He blatantly violates human notions of fairness. God is repeatedly described as "strong" and "cruel." In response to David's prayer, God miraculously brings the child's brain-dead friend, Brian, back to life. Yet, though David performs heroic feats in His service, God ignores the child's prayer that He spare David's mother and father, although, presumably, He has the power to intervene. Worse, David comes to suspect that God has caused Brian's near-fatal accident, then healed him, thereby blackmailing David into offering God an open-ended spiritual I.O.U. Although David declares at the very end of the book that "God is love," this sentiment seems perfunctory. It does not erase David's anguished protests against God's cruelty, nor change the fact that the child's life has been torn to pieces in God's service. While Desperation's God makes prodigious demands of His followers, rewards and punishments have heartbreakingly little relationship to their characters or actions.
Desperation's Tak is a much more protean creation than Tak of The Regulators. Although they share a common origin, Tak, in the companion novel, is not a rival deity, but a psychic vampire who feeds on human pain. In Desperation, Tak is an avenging deity, committed to exposing—and accentuating—human failings. If, as Christians believe, God finds something worthy of redemption in the worst sinner, Tak does the reverse. Under Tak's influence, the faults of fundamentally decent people come to define their whole being. Possessed by Tak, Ellen Carver, who had expressed irritation with her son for praying, erupts into homicidal rage against "the shitting little prayboy."
Eleven-year-old David Carver is Tak's most feared adversary. Like the Gnostics and Wordsworth, King clearly believes that children are closer to the spiritual realm than adults. David joins the company of Mark Petrie (Salem's Lot, 1975), Jack Sawyer (The Talisman, with Peter Straub, 1984), and Daniel Torrance (The Shining, 1977; see separate entry) as the most spiritually gifted character in the novel. Before squeezing through the bars of the Desperation Jail, David prays: "Find innocency in me, God." David's "innocency" enables him to perform this and other "unobtrusive miracles." It is one of King's achievements that, in Desperation, David is convincing both as a small boy, with an enthusiasm for baseball and scary movies, and as a prophet, sent against his will, like Jonah, to do God's will. David's ambivalence about God makes him more convincing as a character than saintly Mother Abigail (The Stand, 1978; 1990).
Mired in his addiction to bodily pleasures and profoundly disillusioned by Viet Nam, Johnny Marinville, as Tak points out, had lost touch with his pneuma until he meets David. Intriguingly, one learns next to nothing directly about two formative periods of his life: his childhood and his tour of duty as a journalist in Viet Nam. King uses uncharacteristic restraint in hinting at the experiences of the younger Johnny, but not supplying facts. Religious parody is the mainstay of Johnny Marinville's humor. A compulsive stand-up comic, the literary lion enjoys playing evangelist. Johnny relieves himself by the side of the highway: '"Praise Jesus, thank you, Lord! he bellowed in his rolling, trembling Jimmy Swaggart voice . . . 'Water in the desert. . ."' Having escaped the Desperation jail, Johnny wisecracks: '"Behold, the buzzard shall lie down with the coyote' . . . . That's in the Bible. Jamaicans, chapter three." Giving the alcoholic Billingsley a small amount of liquor to steady him, Johnny turns his mocking humor on himself: "you're really a saint, aren't you? St. John the Lubricator" Taken out of context, it would be difficult to tell Johnny's biblical riffs from Tak's.
Johnny Marinville is redeemed through his relationship with David Carver. Although he has not liked his own children, Johnny imagines David as his child: "I'd even get down on my knees with him at bedtime, Johnny thought. Shit, anybody would. Look at the results." Under the child's influence, Johnny continues to quote the Bible, but without mockery. When Steve and Cynthia tell of their almost fatal encounter with the stone fragment, Marinville asks Audrey: "Still a doubting Thomas?" After David has dispersed the coyotes with a prayer, Johnny says without sarcasm: '"And a little child shall lead them,'.... So come on child—lead." The implication is that Marinville, like Paul Edgecombe of The Green Mile, was raised in a religious home and that, despite himself, he has retained as an adult the habit of viewing events in biblical terms.
It is the young Johnny, whom David eventually recognizes from an old photograph taken in front of a Vietnamese bar, who guides David during his dream vision. This Johnny completes the boy's religious instruction, begun by Reverend Martin. Johnny tells the child that everyone in the Land of the Dead is dead but David. The implication is that the courageous, idealistic Johnny Marinville died in Viet Nam and that the literary lion of the book's present is, spiritually at least, a walking corpse. When Johnny elects to die in the boy's place, he is led step by step by God. That he has received this revelation means that he has been returned to "innocency" of his younger self.