The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
I missed The Dark Tower the first go-round, though I certainly know a lot of people who think it’s King’s greatest work. King, it’s rumored, thinks that himself, considering it his magnum opus. After being in print for 35 years the book is now being made into a film, giving it more attention and promotion, the main reason I finally picked it up for the first time.
For those who are also newcomers to it, this first volume of the series (there are seven books total) has an old west feeling set in what is possibly an alternate universe, though there’s also a running feeling that it could be Hell or some other kind of afterlife. The parched western landscape certainly gives it a hell-ish atmosphere.
The main character is The Gunslinger, named Roland Deschain of Gilead. As the tale progresses it’s discovered that he’s a descendant of King Arthur. For those who missed French and Renaissance literature, Roland was also the name of a Frankish knight under Charlemagne and considered the original Paladin. He was mythologized in several Italian poems in which his name was changed to Orlando. Roland is crossing the desert in search of “the man in black”. Along the way he meets several people whom he questions about whether they’ve seen the man in black or, this being set in the old west, he kills.
Along the journey he meets a boy named Jake Chambers and, frankly, in any book as ambiguous as this one your senses should always go on alert for any character with the initials JC. Jake has clear memories of having lived in a large city and being pushed into traffic and being killed. Jake is sacrificed again in this book, as Roland continues his quest to find the man in black.
When they meet Roland is given a vision of the cosmos, showing his insignificance, and is also told that his true enemy resides in a dark tower. He tries to convince Roland to give up his quest and Roland refuses. The man in black tells him that he must head to the western sea and then puts Roland to sleep for 10 years. When he wakes he heads to the sea and that’s where the next volume will pick up.
There’s a cottage industry built around analysing the entire corpus, with nearly every character and location receiving an individual entry on Wikipedia. Some take some interesting directions, some just try to retell what you just read in the book with much worse prose than King’s. Since Wikipedia contains so many spoilers it’s much more worthwhile to make note of “what the hell?” moments while reading and then track those down after reading. But again, with a book this ambiguous (not a bad thing) it’s easy to imprint your own interpretations on the book.
For such a leisurely novel, and by that I just mean that the story arc is loooong, the book is strangely compelling, perhaps because there are so many interesting mysteries along the way that make the book a fun puzzle. I have had people tell me the whole of The Dark Tower is the greatest book ever written by a human. That covers a lot of territory but now that I’m not being nagged regularly to read it I’ll keep an open mind as I trek through the desert with Roland in future volumes.