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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Duma Key, by Stephen King,
Scribner, 2008, $32.

IT'S EASY TO look at a writer's life and assume that parts of it fuel the book we're reading. It might seem particularly obvious with Duma Key, in which the protagonist is recovering from a serious accident. (King himself was hit by a vehicle and underwent many months of physical therapy a few years ago.) But while the healing process certainly plays a large part in this novel, the focus is on something different—and it's different for King, too.

I can't remember him ever delving this deeply into the creation of the visual arts before (though to be fair, I haven't read every single one of his books), and I was fascinated to watch the process as the protagonist connected with his art. It also makes me curious as to whether King himself has tried his hand at drawing and painting—not because you need to be able to do something to be able to write about it well, but because there were insights into the act of artistic expression that I would have thought could only come from some hands-on experience.

A good writer will convince you either way, but there seemed to this somewhat jaded reader a deep joy and satisfaction on the writer's part with those particular scenes. Of course, this being King, the art being created is something more than what appears on canvas or paper, but perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

Duma Key begins when building contractor Edgar Freemantle's truck is run over by a crane as it backs onto the vehicle, crushing the truck and Freemantle himself. He loses an arm, sustains head and leg injuries, and his life unravels. In fact, Freemantle narrates the book referring to everything before the accident as his "other life."

Because the accident changes things that much for him.

There are the physical changes to overcome, but mental ones as well since for a time after the accident Freemantle has trouble saying the simplest of words and often flies into a red rage of frustration. His wife divorces him. He begins to plan how best to kill himself so that his family will be able to collect on his life insurance and won't feel responsible for his death.

But an insightful doctor convinces him to wait a year first. To go away and live in an entirely different environment. He asks Freemantle if he ever did anything beside construction work. When Freemantle mentions that he used to doodle while on the phone, the doctor suggests he take up art.

So Freemantle moves from Minnesota to Duma Key, on the coast of Florida. He brings with him some colored pencils and moves into a large rental property that he calls Big Pink.

And things begin to change.

No, he doesn't go all Jack Torrance on us.

What happens is that he finds he loves to draw and he's better at it than he ever thought he might be. A visiting daughter convinces him to buy paints and canvas, and when he does his first oil, a floodgate opens.

Hand in hand with this creative blossoming, Freemantle also discovers that the doctor was right. He's not ready to die just yet. He begins to interact with some of the other inhabitants of the island, then with members of the local artistic community.

Here's one of the things I really loved about the book: the narrator's voice. Throughout, even while trying to explain his passion for his art, he remains a plainspoken building contractor from Minnesota. Besides this being a great voice to draw the reader in, it also allows some terrific straightforward insights into the creative process from a man who's not even sure himself how he gets it done.

There's much more to the book, of course, because the island is haunted. In fact, it preys on the artistically minded, and the art they create there can be much more than simply the expression of their artistic talent.

I don't want to get into any of that because the slow unraveling of what's going on—what has been going on for a very long time—is best discovered by readers in the way that the author meant them to experience it.

Let me just say that while there are any number of terrific scenes of warmth and friendship and expressions of the artistic process, there is also drama and a slow-burning tension. Each enhances the other, and while the payoff is everything it should be, the journey to get there is the true treasure. Which, funnily enough, is the same as in art, where for many artists (some would say the best artists), the process is much more important than the final result.

Duma Key is a book with great heart that touches on the joys and tragedies of the lives of ordinary people who are made extraordinary by how they deal with both. It's a shame that the pundits who so readily dismiss King as just a horror writer will never know how extraordinary a writer he can be.

*     *     *

Jack: Secret Histories, by F. Paul Wilson,
Tor Books, 2008, $15.95.

Repairman Jack is a great concept: a character who lives off the grid—and so is invisible to the authorities—who goes around helping people with the problems nobody else can fix. For a price, of course.

When he debuted in 1984's The Tomb, the character was a fresh, edgy new take on the genre. Wilson didn't come back to Jack until 1998's Legacies, and he has been doing a Jack book pretty much every year since.

But these are all about the adult Jack. How did he come to be that way? How did he figure out a way to bypass the regular channels and cut right to the heart of a problem? Why does he do it?

Secret Histories appears to be the start of a new YA series to explain all of that. Mind you, it's a stand-alone novel, and you don't have to have any familiarity with the adult character to enjoy it. But for longtime readers of the series, the knowledge we have about who Jack is now certainly adds to the pleasure.

The book's set in the early eighties (perhaps 1982, when the Atari 5200 first became available), and opens with a fourteen-year-old Jack biking in the New Jersey Pine Barrens with his friends Weezie and Eddie. They come across a strange pattern of mounds, revealed because of a recent fire that leveled the trees that grew there, and when Eddie accidentally puts his foot through the crust, they discover two things: a mysterious square black box and a long-dead corpse.

This is just the opening gambit. All too soon, residents of the small town of Johnson, New Jersey, are dropping dead, mysterious people are after the black box, and it all seems connected to the mysterious Lodge in Old Town, home of the Septimus Fraternal Order.

Characters tease Jack that he's acting like one of the Hardy Boys as he tries to figure out the mystery, but truth to tell, the book has a bit of the feel of a contemporary Hardy Boys novel. That's not a bad thing and Wilson keeps everything moving at a good pace.

It's a little odd to meet Jack as a kid, with a brother and sister, and family and friends. There are hints as to how he develops some of the techniques at which he's later so adept, but not much to explain why he came to live on the fringe of society the way he does when we meet him in The Tomb. That's why I'm assuming this is the first in a series, because surely Wilson's going to tell us more. The only reason I can think of his holding back is that he's hanging on to these tidbits to reveal them in later books.

The one jarring note in Wilson's usually very capable prose is when he inserts elements to set the story's timeframe. There's nothing wrong with name checking early Apple and Heathkit computers, the music of the times, the introduction of CDs, or even foreshadowing the Internet ("Wouldn't it be cool if you had a TV that broadcast in two directions?"). The problem with a lot of these things is simply that their inclusion seemed clunky to me.

But that's certainly not enough to spoil what proves otherwise an inventive and fun read.

*     *     *

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