Author: Stephen King
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: The Dark Tower (#4)
I read it: February 2017 (re-read)
“Is it a Western?” Jake asked.
Roland looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t take your meaning, Jake. Gilead is a Barony of the Western World, yes, and Mejis as well, but—”
“It’ll be a Western,” Eddie said. “All Roland’s stories are Westerns, when you get right down to it.”
And what a Western it is. Roland relays his coming-of-age tale while his party tries to get their bearings. The first part of the book resolves the issue of Blaine the pain, and the travelers arrive in Topeka, Kansas. No one is around, because this Topeka exists in a when that was devastated by a certain superflu. But it’s not quite the when of the Captain Trips that Stevie’s constant readers are familiar with. This version of Topeka has an odd brand of soda and a strange make of car tucked in among the familiar Fords and Chevys. This is just one of the many parallel worlds spun out from the center where the Tower stands.
But forget all that. This book is about what happens 100 pages later, when Roland decides to tell a story. It’s a doozy. And it’s fantastic. A fantasy Western romance, to put a finer point on it. And here we come to an uncomfortable truth: this may be the high point of the series. And ironically, because it’s all a flashback, it might be the book that has the least to do with Roland’s current path to the Tower. That’s not entirely true, of course: if nothing else, the goal of this book is to give us a better picture of Roland the person, as well as Roland the pawn.
In this story, young Roland is a mere 14 years old. He’s sent on a faux-errand with his friends, and apprentice gunslingers, Cuthbert and Alain. (The name “Cuthbert” comes from the Robert Browning poem.) Their homeland and surrounding areas are being torn apart by political strife and oncoming war by the likes of the “Good Man” John Farson, so their fathers want them out of harm’s way, and into Mejis. Their cover mission is to tally belongings in their host town so they can report back their findings to the capital. But just Roland’s luck, he falls in love on his first night in town. Who can resist the charms of a broody, growing-up-too-fast reluctant leader type? Susan Delgado can’t.
Susan is one of the first characters we meet in the tale. Well, her and the witch. Rhea of the Cöos is a vile sort, an archetype rendered in Kingian horror fashion. She’s the crone up on the hill, and she’s in charge of hiding a powerful glass ball for Farson. This is a pink trinket known as the Grapefruit, one of thirteen colorful seeing stones that act as palantírs and have almost fallen into the realm of myth. (As kids, Roland and his partners didn’t believe they were real items.) So here is the “glass” in the wonderfully evocative title Wizard and Glass. The wizard is either Maerlyn, the progenitor of the seeing stones (which are also called “Maerlyn’s rainbow”) or it could mean another…
Deep into the story, we get a glimpse of Walter. He is dangled intriguingly but we learn precious little about him. He’s described as an “underliner” for Farson, which I presume to mean the type of upper management who steps in only when absolutely needed, to turn the tide of events back to a malicious path if the good guys meddle too much. But he and Farson feature only as background in the story. (Sylvia Pittston, last seen in The Gunslinger, also gets a mention, as a “wandering preacher-woman that had come through town the year before.”)
And the good guys do meddle. They young newcomers know that something is up with the cowardly men in governing positions. They also make instant enemies with a trio of Farson henchmen known as the Big Coffin Hunters, a group of failed gunslingers who underestimate the teenagers and then come to regret it. One of the best comedic action pieces of King’s career is the early encounter that these dangerous adults have with the three boys from Gilead. One night in a rough saloon, an accident is about to turn violent and Sheemie (another memorable guy!) is on the verge of getting killed. Just inside the batwing doors, Cuthbert draws a slingshot on one of the Big Coffin Hunters. But then he is threatened from behind by another one from the trio, with a gun. Yet that person is then targeted by Alain right behind him… until the opposing leaders, Eldred Jonas and Roland, are also in the chain. It’s a six-person draw, and it’s fine storytelling.
Another wonderful moment in the saga: Cuthbert losing it with Roland and dealing him a swift punch because of what he has caused by falling in love. Which brings to mind another great piece: Roland’s secret meetings with Susan and her unforgettable line, “If you love me, then love me.” And so many more rich overlapping images and storylines. Horses running on the Drop. The moons changing as summer turns into fall and Reaping comes closer. Susan’s fated partnering with the Mayor and her struggle to get free of her aunt’s hold. The thinny: a warbling, watery, entrancing fracture between worlds. The oilfields out at Citgo, where Roland’s crew stumbles upon disturbing truths about the upcoming war.
There’s so much to like about this setting and this story. King knows his Western genre, and he’s made a fully believable place out of Mejis. When I first read this book I was studying abroad in Mexico, and I think I asked my dad to send me a copy when I ran out of free reading material. I remember reading this one on a beach under the sun and being entranced. Of course, Mejis itself is a version of Mexico. The residents speak of the fin de año celebrations, and the vaqueros ride with serapes and sombreros. There are several dialects employed throughout the tale, with Roland’s upper-middle class speech differing from the more colloquial speech of their host town.
This quasi-mythical setting is why the language works so well for King this time around. It’s a huge mix of invented slang and familiar Western-y phrases, and it all seems to work just right. Contrast this with the larger Dark Tower story that features characters from our era, when half the time Eddie Dean cracks a joke it just falls incredibly flat. In Wizard and Glass, however, there seems to be not a single slip out of the moment. It’s a world rich enough to inspire an entire run of Marvel comics that went on to create subtales to fill in the spaces between this long yet focused story. It’s like reading Tolkien and that comfort of knowing there is a huge tapestry in the background, a very cared for imagined history. (And like Frodo, Roland is hitting the road under a false name, “Will Dearborn.”)
This story also reinforces just how long it’s been since the world has “moved on.” In the present tale, with Roland as an adult, it’s obvious that the setting in The Waste Lands is a post-fall scenario. Yet even when Roland was young, in Wizard and Glass, the world had already moved on. It wasn’t laid to waste yet (he was born into a still relatively stable world on the edge of pure turmoil) but his Western lifestyle occurs after technology had come and gone. Paper is a rare commodity and not to be wasted; guns are available, but not plentiful. “Hey Jude” continues to be popular but nobody knows where it came from. The oil derricks are treated like haunted behemoths to be avoided. And whoever is bold (or crazy, or sadistic) enough to try to reboot the old war machines is going to have a hell of a run laying the countryside to waste—such is Farson’s goal. It feels like the 1800s, but it could be our 2200s.
The big picture stuff is great, and makes you never regret holding a 700-page paperback. But of course it’s the personal story at the center that makes the purple hue so alluring. Roland and Susan are doomed lovers, and that anxious ache leaks through to the reader in a cruel and masterful way. Both of the characters struggle with duty versus passion, and both know the mysterious and frustrating way that ka can be called upon to support or hinder an argument. Susan wrestles with herself at one point:
All she wanted stood against all she believed of honor, and her mind roared with conflict. Around all, like a rising wind around an unstable house, she felt the idea of ka growing. Yet to give over one’s honor for that reason was so easy, wasn’t it? To excuse the fall of virtue by invoking all-powerful ka. It was soft thinking.
Shortly after, she makes up her mind and says that “ka can take care of itself.” But that’s the problem with a concept so much like fate. It always will take care of itself, yet you’re left wondering whether you could have changed anything. Inevitably, Roland ends up bringing on Susan’s demise. The chain of events is a Rorschach of cause and effect, and one could argue that he had everything to do with it, or very little, or nothing at all. There are times when he gave himself fully to love and other times when he did his duty as a gunslinger, and it’s hard to fault any single specific act.
Yet as Roland tells this story years later, his sharp pain is in the realization that he really may not have anything like his own agency. Say it’s ka or say it’s his stubbornness or say it’s the influence of too many evil antagonists (no shortage of those), but the plain fact is that the people around him die. And therein lies the double razor of him having to tell this story to his new companions outside Topeka: half of it is a painful purge of the memory of his first and only love, the other half is the slow reveal that his new friends, too, are wrapped up in his destiny and probably won’t come out the other side. It has taken him a lifetime to figure this out. It might take him many lifetimes.
Mid-World Roundup (brought to you by the Bar K):
- 19: REGARD. (As in, you better regard yourself as generally screwed in life, sai Roland.)
- Epigraphs: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz, Robert Browning “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
- Mid-World travel dictionary: “salig” (snake); “dot-picture/fottergrafs” (photographs)
- Western-era sayings: So many good ones, but some of the best include “pert” (uppity, youthful), “trig” (sly, too clever), “I wot” (I’d say). Example: “Why’d that kid get punched on the high street?” “Pert trig, I wot.”
- The world next door: Nods to our own world include Old Pa’s Ark, Pinch and Jilly (a version of Punch and Judy), several names of oil companies, the aforementioned Beatles classic that seems to be the only ballad that survived. And there’s a whole post-Mejis section of this book that has some tangible Wizard of Oz stuff going on, ruby slippers and all.
- Know your gunslinger:
- “Susannah had felt a reluctant love for Roland of Gilead, a feeling that seemed a mixture of admiration, fear, and pity.”
- “Although he didn’t know it then, he would sleep badly for the rest of his life.” (This must be part of the “pity” that Susannah feels for the poor guy.)