by Matthew Peckham
"Three. This is the number of your fate." So prophecies the demon oracle to Roland Deschain in The Gunslinger; at the end of that first book, Roland sits in repose on a great western beach watching the sun purple a sky filling with stars and dreaming "his long dreams of the Dark Tower." It is a deeply, darkly romantic moment that evokes one of the oldest of American myths: the West, the great and unconquered frontier.
The Drawing of the Three is the second book in a cycle of seven called The Dark Tower which describes the quest of the world's last gunslinger -- Roland Deschain of Gilead -- to put right whatever has tainted or "wronged" his rapidly decaying reality. At the center of space and time is the Dark Tower, a nexus for all realities; Roland believes something has corrupted the tower and perverted what he thinks of as "love and light." At the end of The Gunslinger, Roland is told he will be vested with the power to draw three, cryptically named: the prisoner, the lady of shadows, and death.
Roland's power to "draw" turns out to be an unconscious ability to conjure inter-dimensional portals, or "doors" through which Roland is able to make contact with humans in our world, each one at a different temporal point. The story begins where the first book ends, seven hours later on the same starlit beach. King reintroduces Roland in the prologue, but springs something unexpected -- he mutilates his anti-hero.
The gunslinger staggered to his feet. The thing tore open his dripping jeans, tore through a boot whose old leather was soft but as tough as iron, and took a chunk of meat from Roland's lower calf. He drew with his right hand, and realized two of the fingers required to perform this ancient killing operation were gone only when the revolver thumped to the sand.Roland's talent, his greatest asset aside from his obdurate will, is his finger skill with guns, a pair of gigantic antique .45s with smooth wood grips he can load and draw and fire with superhuman dexterity (Roland is the culmination of every western movie hero, a mix of Eastwood's "man with no name" and Schwarzenegger's robotic terminator). The removal of fingers from Roland's right hand is a symbolic act of castration, perhaps a kind of karmic penance intended to balance the chain of damning sacrifices (people, family, friends, lovers) he's made thus far. Crippled, dehydrated, starving, and dying from blood poisoning, Roland advances along the beach several miles to the first door, labeled in accordance with the tarot reading: "The Prisoner."
It stood six and a half feet high and appeared to be made of solid ironwood, although the nearest ironwood tree must grow seven hundred miles or more from here... this door where no door should be. It simply stood there on the gray strand twenty feet above the high-tide line, seemingly as eternal as the sea itself, now casting the slanted shadow of its thickness toward the east as the sun westered.When Roland opens the door, he see the Earth from thousands of feet in the air, and panics before realizing that this is the ground viewed from the interior of a flying machine (an airplane), through the eyes of another entity. That entity turns out to be Eddie Dean, located in New York City circa 1987. Per the man in black's tarot reading, Eddie has been "infested with a demon"; the name of the demon: HEROIN, thus Eddie is "The Prisoner." A tense and evocative zero-sum sequence ensues, involving narcotics trafficking, drug lords, and Roland's desperate attempt to "draw" Eddie into Roland's own world with medicine enough to stabilize his deadly infection.
When Roland enters the door, he has the ability to manipulate or take full control of Eddie, thus allowing King to create narrative motion exploring "The Rules." For example, Roland can bring matter from our world back to his, but not vice versa. When he "comes forward" and takes possession of his host, the host's eyes change to the deep blue color of Roland's eyes. When Roland moves in his world, the door follows him, and the door is only visible at 180 degrees from one side to the other -- moving behind it causes it to disappear. Only Roland can open the door, and when both Roland and his host are on Roland's side, closing the door seals off the portal forever.
The first third of the book is a game of culture-clash and logic puzzles, as Roland acclimates to the door's mystical principles and the sights and sounds of 1987 New York. Eddie is carrying a considerable amount of cocaine under his arms as part of a drug deal for a New York kingpin named Enrico Balazar. Roland's intrusions into Eddie's consciousness produce erratic behavior, alerting the stewardesses on the plane to the bulges under Eddie's arms. Subsequent missteps result in an apocalyptic gun battle with Balazar and his thugs that is meticulously crafted and breathlessly pulled-off. King apparently spent a lot of time studying the mechanics of guns, gunfighting, and ballistics, as the combat details are rich and colorful and balletic, but without a trace of technical overload.
The Encyclopedia of Fantasy circa 1997 (and in relation to the first three books) describes The Dark Tower series as taking place in "a bleakly fantasticated, underpopulated landscape of the future... where strange events occur among the decaying detritus of a lost technological age... [the future] is an imprecise fantasist's future rather than an SF one." This is true if one defines SF as John Clute and John Grant most generally do: "a text whose story is explicitly or implicitly extrapolated from scientific or historical premises," incorporates a "sense of wonder," and can be argued as plausible within the parameters of contemporary scientific theories. While The Gunslinger easily slots into the "imprecise" category, the second and especially third books in the series begin to peel back the fantasy layer, to reveal a more durable multi-dimensional construct beneath, shifting the tale into more of a "science fantasy" position. When King wrote The Gunslinger in 1970, quantum physics was still coming into its own, sparking endless speculation about the nature of size, including the poetic notion that universes within universes might exist in something as simple as an air molecule or a flake of dandruff. Thus Roland's palaver with The Man in Black at the end of the first book contains much philosophical dialogue about the problems endemic to infinity and finite perception ("The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size... size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size"). While scientific fidelity is not paramount here, it is ironic to note the parallels between King's loose improvisations on speculative quantum science and recent multi-dimensional derivatives from superstring theory. Like a Beethoven symphony filled with romantic straining against the strictures of classical antecedents, it is precisely the tension between these disparate categories, not dogged adherence to one genre construct, that augments the beautiful, the weird, and the poetic here.
King is fond of singsong rambling, bordering on stream-of-consciousness, but here -- as in the other books -- it is refined and controlled, always subordinate to the story. The durable, stoic pilgrim's voice from The Gunslinger has been replaced by much postmodern American patois, notching down the mythic ambiance and slackening the narrative compellingly. What follows is extracted from a scene in which Eddie, smuggling cocaine taped under his armpits, has a cynical lapse about the plan, and addresses the so-called "master planner," his drug-addicted brother Henry, in his mind:
Hey Henry, o great sage & eminent junkie big brother, while we're on the subject of our feathered friends, you want to hear my definition of cooked goose? That's when the customs guy[s] at Kennedy [decide] there's something a little funny about the way you look... and they say maybe you better take off your t-shirt... because you look like maybe you got some kind of a medical problem, buddy, those bulges under your pits look like maybe they could be some kind of lymphatic tumors or something... so you take off the t-shirt and hey, looky here, you're some lucky kid, those aren't tumors, unless they're what you might call tumors on the corpus of society, yuk-yuk-yuk, those things look more like a couple of baggies held there with Scotch strapping tape, and by the way, don't worry about that smell, son, that's just goose. It's cooked.Before King revised The Gunslinger, the narrative style of the second book clashed with the first. Formal and in King's words, "pretentious," the revised edition relaxes the voice into something that meshes better with the latter volumes. There is still a minor gulf between Roland's phrases here, and the catchy argot he adopts by the fourth book (which circles around to the revisions in the first), and there are also a few factual details at odds with later decisions, but they're minor things having to do with names and locations. King has stated he intends to further revise the entire series, to provide what he refers to as a "director's cut" of things which should tidy up the scant few missteps of thirty-plus years of writing continuity gaps.
The remaining portion of the story is dedicated to ratcheting up the stakes and putting Roland through a gauntlet of events that include, in conjunction with the first book, a clever variation on the temporal loop trope that sets the stage for the third book, The Waste Lands. Among themes grappled with by the characters are racism, feminism and gender roles, obsessive sociopaths, psychogenic fugues, substance abuse, and philosophical determinism (a pivotal theme throughout the series). The resolutions, when they come, are as unexpected as Roland's crippling wounds in the prologue, the ending as satisfying in its romantic ambivalence as the first book's conclusion.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of this book is its integration of average American lives into an otherwise bleakly romantic fantasy. Eddie is a drug-addict suffering from intense sibling guilt; Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker are two halves of one person grappling with the ethics of social etiquette and aristocratic integration (she inherited millions from her father), and the ironic hatred she has of all things pretentious or elitist or racist. And there are countless others visited in brief, a stewardess whose paranoid recollections of airline terror-training prompt her to action, a mafia leader who likes to build towers from decks of cards, a man who experiences sexual pleasure when he completes elaborate missions to covertly inflict harm. The most notable effect of these comes not from the generic details, but the way in which King makes the generic poignant, the ordinary arresting.
While the first, third and fourth books move Roland and his companions over vast geographic distances, this second book is more of an interlude, a place for Roland to consider his quest and replenish his strength by drawing a new ka-tet (a phrase which appears later in the series, and which means literally "one from many"). Like the Scribner (revised) edition of The Gunslinger, the second book also has a new subtitle: "Renewal," with the same solitary number nineteen on an opposing, otherwise blank page. The new introduction, "On Being Nineteen" is also duplicated here, but otherwise the story, complete with its opening "Argument" synopsis and book-ending "Afterword" are identical to the previous editions.
The Drawing of the Three was originally published by Donald M. Grant in 1987 as a hardcover with full color illustrations by artist Phil Hale. These tended to be edgy human forms awash in hazy panels of light blues and dusty oranges. A second edition was published by Donald M. Grant later with entirely new illustrations, also by Phil Hale, but starkly different -- a mix of dark browns and blacks, and character physiology packed with kinetics and visualized in clenched fists and punchy, grimacing faces. The latter illustrations inhabit the new Scribner edition and are easy to linger over, though I prefer Hale's originals; it is his 1987 version of Roland, now as then, that frequents my mind when I read these books.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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