The narratives in Hearts in Atlantis give the impression of having been originally composed as separate projects and then spliced together to make a book. The first two take up over 400 pages of the 523-page book and have virtually nothing to tie them together except the fact that Carol Gerber, who appears as a little girl in “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” pops up as a coed in “Hearts in Atlantis.”
King can do no wrong; he has so much talent, such a zany imagination, and so many adoring fans that any book bearing his name is almost automatically a best-seller. In “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” creatures from another dimension communicate by posting lost pet notices on telephone poles, hanging kite tails from telephone wires, and adding cryptic symbols to hopscotch layouts that little girls have chalked on sidewalks. In “Hearts in Atlantis,” the familiar and innocuous card game of hearts becomes such an obsession for a whole college dormitory that the queen of spades takes on a life of her own and threatens to destroy budding careers.
In “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” a sixty-year-old man who calls himself Ted Brautigan rents a studio apartment in the building where Bobby Garfield lives with a mother who is too self- centered, too resentful, and too harassed making a living at menial jobs to give Bobby the love he needs. (King’s own mother had to work at such jobs after her merchant seaman husband deserted the family.) Ted and Bobby become friends because they share an interest in books and because Bobby seems to be looking for a father substitute. Ted proves to be highly literate and makes a wealth of suggestions to young Bobby, who has just acquired full adult borrowing privileges at the public library. Through Brautigan, King himself is passing along some of his own favorites to his millions of readers worldwide, as well as opinions about literature in general. “There are also books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories,” says Brautigan. “Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words—the language. Don’t be like the play-it- safers that won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”
Among Ted’s (King’s) recommendations are Clifford Simak’s Ring Around the Sun (1953); William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955); John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), The Day of the Triffids (1951), and The Kraken Wakes (1953); H. G. Wells’s science- fiction classic The Time Machine (1895); William Peter Blatty’sThe Exorcist (1971); George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945); Davis Grubb’sNight of the Hunter (1953); John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937); and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1882), along with works by William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Theodore Dreiser, and David Goodis.
Bobby soon realizes that Ted is not the humble retiree he pretends to be—and may not be a human being at all. Like Ole Andreson in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” (1927), Ted is hiding out in a small town. He is being tracked by a sinister group of “low men” who may not be human either. Ted has extrasensory powers that the low men had been forcing him to employ in their war against another nebulous faction that evidently represents the forces of good in the universe. Ted can read minds, predict the future, and communicate by telepathy. He passes on some of his powers to Bobby before being recaptured by the low men and driven off to captivity in one of their gaudy automobiles—which may not be automobiles at all but supernatural creatures or vehicles that can travel between dimensions.
King does a marvelous job of making these evil monsters seem real. They are the kinds of lowlife creatures whose presence is sensed in the sleaziest environments. Brautigan describes them as
The sort of men who’d shoot craps in an alley, let’s say, and pass around a bottle of liquor in a paper bag during the game. The sort who lean against telephone poles and whistle at women walking by on the other side of the street while they mop the backs of their necks with handkerchiefs that are never quite clean. . . . Men who look like they know all the right answers to all of life’s stupid questions.
There are overtones of sexual perversity in this story. Bobby’s mother dislikes Brautigan, whom she insists on calling Brattigan. She suspects him of being a pedophile and a fugitive. Then her worst fears are confirmed when she returns home to find Brautigan holding the nearly naked little Carol Gerber on his lap. Carol has been so badly beaten by three hooligans...
(The entire section is 1976 words.)