Monday, March 25, 2013

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

This is one of King’s shorter works. Only 264 pages in the paperback I read. Unfortunately, it takes King 100 pages to figure out whose story he’s telling.

Trisha rebuckled the pack’s flap before she could weaken, then wrapped her arms around it again. Now that she wasn’t thirsty anymore, what should she imagine? And she knew, just like that. She imagined Tom Gordon was in the clearing with her, that he was standing right over there by the stream. Tom Gordon in his home uniform; it was so white it almost glowed in the moonlight. Not really guarding her because he was just pretend…but sort of guarding her. Why not? It was her make-believe, after all.

Trisha is a nine-year-old girl who has gotten lost in the woods, and has been listening to a Red Sox baseball game on her Walkman to keep her from being too frightened. Tom Gordon is a closing pitcher for the Red Sox, and her favorite player.

What was that in the woods? she asked him.

She’s been seeing things in the woods—scary things; and is uncertain if they are real or just in her imagination.

Don’t know, Tom replied. He sounded indifferent. Of course he could afford to sound indifferent, couldn’t he? The real Tom Gordon was two hundred miles away in Boston, and by now probably asleep behind a locked door.

“How do you do it?” she asked, sleepy again now, so sleepy she wasn’t aware that she was speaking out loud. “What’s the secret?”

Secret of what?

“Of closing,” Trisha said, her eyes closing.

She thought he would say believing in God—didn’t he point to the sky every time he was successful, after all?—or believing in himself, or maybe trying your best (that was the motto of Trisha’s soccer coach: “Try your best, forget the rest”), but Number 36 said none of those things as he stood by the little stream.

You have to try to get ahead of the first hitter, was what he said. You have to challenge him with that first pitch, throw a strike he can’t hit. He comes to the plate thinking, I’m better than this guy. You have to take that idea away from him, and it’s best not to wait. It’s best to do it right away. Establishing that it’s you who’s better, that’s the secret of closing.

This comes on page 103, and it is both the moral of the story, and the first time I believe that Trisha is actually a nine-year-old girl.

Up to that point, you see, King doesn’t treat her like any nine-year-old girl I ever heard of. Or maybe he tries to, but her inner voice and the voice of the narrator are so intertwined and can’t tell them apart.

…when she got to be Pete’s age her face would probably be one great pimple if she didn’t lay off the sweets…

…she now looked back on her panicky plunge through the woods with the mixture of indulgence and embarrassment adults feel when looking back upon the worst of their childhood behavior…

…it had been a crappy day, all right, très crappy…

…her pack, of which she had hardly been aware up until now, began to feel like a large, unstable baby in one of those papoose carriers…

…at last, moving as wearily as a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work (she felt like a woman of sixty after a hard day’s work)…

These are all in the narrator’s voice—in the sense that they are not direct quotations attributed to Trisha or italicized words to depict Trisha’s actual thoughts—but they are all so close to Trisha’s point of view, and, to my way of thinking, so obviously connections and language that an adult mind would employ, that they really prevented me from getting into the story and seeing Trisha as King undoubtedly wanted me to see her—as a frightened nine-year-old girl in a whole lot of trouble. What did I see instead? I saw Stephen King, the aging novelist who has written one too many books that rely on the same narrative arc pretending to be a nine-year-old girl.

Here’s the absolute epitome.

She got moving again. Three quarters of the way down, a bug—a big one, not a minge or a mosquito—flew into her face. It was a wasp, and Trisha batted at it with a cry. Her pack shifted violently to her downhill side, her right foot slipped, and suddenly her balance was gone. She feel, hit the rock slope on her shoulder with a tooth-rattling thud, and began to slide.

“Oh shit on toast!” she cried, and grabbed the ground.

Oh shit on toast? That’s what a nine-year-old girl who’s lost in the woods says when she loses her footing and begins sliding down a rocky hill? Oh shit on toast?

King does sporadically use a technique that helps, putting the thoughts and expressions that more appropriately belong to adults in the echoed voices of adults Trisha knows.

…Of course, if pigs had wings, bacon would fly. Her father said that…

…At least she wasn’t going to die from the stings, or she’d probably be dying already. She had overheard Mom and Mrs. Thomas from across the street talking about someone who was allergic to stings, and Mrs. Thomas had said, “Ten seconds after it gut im, poor ole Frank was swole up like a balloon. If he hadn’t had his little kit with the hyperdermic, I guess he woulda choked to death…”

But he does this far too infrequently to make Trisha’s constant flashes of King’s own vernacular adult wisdom believable. It really was the most distracting part of the first hundred pages.

The second hundred pages are better, and I especially liked the climax, where Trisha confronts and defeats a wild bear—blurred by her disorientation after a few days of hunger and dehydration and King’s typical storytelling tricks—into perhaps a malevolent entity called the God of the Lost, by pitching her Walkman at it in classic Tom Gordon style and bopping it right on the nose. Tom’s lesson—that you have to take the thought that your opponent is better than you away from him as quickly as you can—comes full circle in a nice and fulfilling way.

And in this regard, I realize that Trisha has to be a nine years old in order for the story to work. She can’t be anything else. Can you imagine an adult, lost in the woods, conjuring up a projection of his favorite baseball player to be his guardian and pathfinder in a time of desperation?

King never tries to convince us that Tom Gordon is actually with Trisha in the woods. He knows better than anyone that it isn’t really Gordon that’s protecting her. It is Trisha’s child-like sense of hero worship that gives her the courage to push forward and do what she does. And given the themes King has written about so many times before, that is a concept worthy of his narrative gifts.

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