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'From A Buick 8,' by Stephen King

King's 'Buick 8' runs out of gas

Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Allan Walton, Post-Gazette Assistant Managing Editor

The best part of Stephen King's new 350-page novel is the end. No, not that end. I mean the very end -- the author's note in which we learn the genesis of this disappointing, no-thrills, no-chills, no-frills, pay-the-bills piece of pap.


"From A Buick 8"

By Stephen King.

Scribner. $28.


In the postscript, King tells us he fashioned a draft before his widely publicized near-death scrape with a minivan. After a stay in Florida, his wife flew back to their beloved Maine while King, no fan of airplanes, took the scenic route by car.

At a stop in rural Western Pennsylvania, he paused to look at a swollen stream behind a gas station, lost his balance on a steep, snowy slope and nearly slid into the water and, perhaps, his grave.

He collected himself, got back in his vehicle and pushed the accelerator both of his truck and his imagination. By the time he'd reached New York, he had the story cemented in his mind and a couple of problems: He knew nothing about Western Pennsylvania and even less about the Pennsylvania State Police, destined to provide the novel's primary characters.

He resolved those issues, spending time in and around Butler to research the locale and hang out with some troopers. Set in the fictional town of Statler, the book includes many references to the Pittsburgh area (even the Post-Gazette gets a couple of mentions) and to the state police at the Butler barracks.

Then came King's accident, leaving his completed draft (which took just two months) to sit on the shelf.

Frankly, despite the novelty of the local setting, we'd be better off if it still sat there. The novel isn't half as interesting as King's personal and compelling author's note, which makes it clear some of this is metaphor for his own dance with death, both at the station and with the minivan.

So exactly what went wrong?

Looking past the fact it's written as if it should be on a McDonald's menu board, the story rushes to a "conclusion" that resolves nothing.

Here's the McPlot:

Back in 1979, a mysterious stranger in an old Buick Roadmaster pulls up to a gas station, telling the young attendant to fill it up. The stranger wears a long black coat and hat (don't they always?) that obscures his features.

What little the attendant sees of his face is enough to consider him, if not otherworldly, freakish. Minutes pass, then a half-hour, but the Buick sits idle and the stranger fails to return. Soon the state police are on the scene. What looks like a Buick soon gives the troopers pause -- it has no distributor, no alternator or generator, a battery that's wired to nothing and a glass exhaust system.

In effect, it's a car that had no business running -- if it ever really did. Seeing as how that's pretty much my experience with Buicks, the revelation raised not one goose bump.

Anyway, the Buick is towed to the Butler barracks and stored in a shed. The mystery of the stranger is unsolved, as is the subsequent disappearance of officer Ennis Rafferty.

The trooper most interested in the car is Curtis Wilcox, who becomes part scientist, running experiments, taking notes, shooting pictures and so on. The car gives the state police a light show -- or "lightquake" -- every now and then, scaring their pants off (or, in my case, scaring up yawns).

A car that lights up, hums, lowers the temperature in the shed and, eventually, "gives birth" to strange, dead creatures may be odd, but it isn't creepy.

At least Christine took aim at someone. (Speaking of which, for someone who professes no knowledge of Western Pennsylvania, did King forget that his other tale of the bizarre car was set in Pittsburgh?)

Told mostly in "then" and "now" chapters, we're also introduced to Ned Wilcox, son of Curtis. Ned's father, we're told, met his demise on the highway when a driver (the gas station attendant, all grown up and drunk as a skunk) pinned him to the side of a semi he'd pulled over.

Ned, a high school senior when his father was killed, begins hanging out at the barracks, ultimately coaxing stories of his father's obsession with the Buick out of the troopers.

It takes only a brain burp to realize this story will revolve around a like-father, like-son plot line. About the time that we learn the Buick not only gives birth but ingests living creatures as well, you may be ready to swap Ned for bed. Unlike so many of King's books, this one is the warm milk of thrillers.

Predictably, the novel is yet another pop culture reference book. The King thing is to make us relate to his words not so much because they make us think, but because they make us feel and remember.

Hence a zillion references to pop songs, Polaroids and "fruit loops" (on shirts, not in cereal bowls). Even the title mirrors an old Bob Dylan tune, "From a Buick 6." King is successful largely because he connects with readers by speaking their language.

Sadly, this time style gets us nowhere. His latest coasts, sputters, stalls and, ultimately, is a car wreck of a book.

Allan Walton can be reached at awalton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1932.

Friday, September 20, 2002

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