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Reviews of Hearts in Atlantis (1999)

Review by douglas (2003-10-05)
King’s Hearts in Atlantis tells four different stories that are joined together somewhat indirectly by sharing some of the same characters. Think Tarantino, only instead of jumping back and forth along the timeline, these progress straight forward starting in the idyllic early 60’s and finishing in the 00’s. We catch the childhood of one set of characters, the college years of another, and then the middle age of yet another. And of course, they all come together in the end. King’s purpose is to conjure up that warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling of childhood, and then to explore how that time was ‘lost’ during the Vietnam era.

The first section is easily the best, both from a writing standpoint and from an interesting story standpoint. It also happens to be the sole subject of the film made about this novel, but that’s another story. We follow a group of three close friends: Bobby Garfield, Carol Gerber, and John Sullivan as they grow up in a sleepy, idealized suburban neighborhood. The story takes a very unusual turn when an older gentleman, Ted Brautigan, moves into the apartment upstairs from Bobby. We come to learn that he has an unusual power, and that he is on the run from the ‘low men’ who seem like something out of a sci-fi novel.

The character of Bobby’s mother is probably the best written in the entire novel, her cruelty is terrifying at times and the reader really feels it. From here the book takes a bad turn. The point of view shifts completely off Bobby, and onto a new and completely random character who is just starting college. The only connection to the rest is the fact that he meets Carol Gerber. The story line is interesting at first – a big university at the beginning of the protest years. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere though, and the next section of the book is another odd jump.

We pick up on the story of Blind Willie – a bully from the first section who now earns money by pretending to be a blinded Vietnam vet. Another section focuses on John Sullivan, also from earlier, and his battle with post Vietnam trauma.

Overall King is an excellent storyteller, but Hearts in Atlantis seemed a little disjointed to me, the connections between sections were abrupt and could have been transitioned to a little better. Obviously his goal was to create a nostalgic and ‘important’ reflection on the events surrounding Vietnam – something sure to appeal to the very wide demographic of baby boomers and even some post-boomers. The topic has been better covered and King really adds nothing new. We already know that Vietnam was terrible and unfair and it severely affected even those that survived it. King rehashes many themes: the loss of the idealized childhood that never really existed, and the self-importance of the 60’s era protesters. Sure many great things were accomplished by a few in this time, but much of it was just nonsense. Kings worst offense is sympathizing and rationalizing an act of protest terrorism that inadvertently has deadly results.

The greatest insight of the novel is one King probably didn’t intend, which is a window into the mind of his generation and how badly it shaped their future thinking. We need look no further than the current war in Iraq to see the knee-jerk reaction to conflict many from that era now possess.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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